USED CAR TEST – FORD EF FALCON XR6
The Age’ April 1999
GOOD: Rorty performance, Falcon practicality, economical to own. Sharp handling, pleasing sporting character, distinctive styling.
BAD: Still not truly refined, engine noisy at higher revs. Garish interior trim, gauche red stripes. Rear can skip on rough roads.
VERDICT: A good niche vehicle marrying sportiness with family sedan practicality.
RATING: four stars **** (out of 5)
Four headlights flanking a thrust-forward snout, fat red stripes and garish interior trim left beholders in no doubt that the XR6 version of the EF Falcon was something different.
Its new and unique grille panel gave it far greater visual differentiation from other Falcons and Fairmonts. There were also significant mechanical improvements. It gained more power and torque from the EF’s reworked engine, but this time around the difference between the XR engine and the standard issue 4.0-litre six was smaller than previously – because the base engine was so markedly improved.
The XR6 looked the business while delivering V8-style performance with better fuel economy. It actually accelerated harder than its V8-powered XR8 sibling – thanks mainly to lower gearing which kept the engine spinning a little faster – and was a strong performer than its predecessors. Only the much more expensive Holden Special Vehicles V8s showed more verve.
More important than this increase in power were the changes made to the suspension of the standard EF. This was where the base car had metaphorically gone backwards.
The EF provided a perfect illustration of how debates between internal departments with different priorities are resolved (or not). The argument was between the suspension engineers and their counterparts responsible for making the car as quiet and refined as possible. The latter won, and the EF displayed nervous handling as the undesirable trade-off for its newfound refinement and quietness.
Ford’s performance-car partner, Tickford Vehicle Engineering, rightly reviewed this decision, changing components in the front suspension to ensure the XRs handled much better than other Falcons. Even so, some experts reckoned the EF didn’t have quite the precision and surefootedness of its ED predecessor.
The XR6 benefited from the EF’s comprehensive interior redesign. The stylish new dashboard looked better and placed the controls more conveniently. But it still wasn’t immune from the Falcon’s irritating plastic squeaks.
Bright interior trim material, lacking the quality feel of the dashboard, probably turned some prospective buyers away. To many, the red stripes (red cars got black stripes) were too brash.
The EF was the first Australian car with a standard driver’s airbag. The XR6 also had anti-lock brakes. Central locking and power mirrors and front windows were standard.
Ford Australia was making great gains in build quality, but paintwork was still a weak point. The darker metallic colours scatched easily; the very popular Cobalt Blue was discontinued during the EF’s life because of quality problems; on some cars a trained eye could see through the paint. The central locking could switch on and off in an infuriating cyclic pattern – this took two years to fix.
A $4,700 option when new, the 16-inch wheels and body kit (main picture) will add $1,000-$1,500 to today’s prices.
The XR6’s standard five-speed manual transmission mates well with the car’s sporty character. TheFrom a long-term maintenance viewpoint the manual is a better proposition than the optional four-speed automatic which is expensive to overhaul.
Especially as a manual, the XR6 should be thought of as a sports sedan. It has firmer suspension and a lower ride height than mainstream models but goes to no extremes, so it can take rough roads with smooth and generally serve as an all-round family sedan.
It is no BMW, but gives a greater degree of driver involvement than a standard Falcon. This desirability is reflected in excellent resale values.
A good sort
‘The Age’ January 2000
Although the AU Falcon is slowly gaining marketplace acceptance (we can’t wait to see what the March update brings), used-car buyers shouldn’t forget about the later versions of the last Falcon platform.
There are vast numbers of EF and EL Fords out there, with something for everyone among the Falcons, Futuras and Fairmonts in a broad range of specification levels.
The best news is that by the time Ford got around to building EFs and ELs, most of the quality and design problems of the EAs and EBs had been ironed out. Ford worked hard on the problems that surfaced soon after the EA launch in 1988, an effort that started to pay off in 1994 when the EF landed.
The other good news is that the EF’s arrival marked the first and only real facelift to the Falcon in a nine-year model cycle.
The rather undistinguished frontal treatment was replaced by a much softer, rounded, more aero look with slimmer headlights and only a grille below the bumper on the Falcon and Futura models.
The Fairmont and Fairmont Ghia had a much classier front with a distinctive grille above the bumper-line. Too bad it was a dummy grille with nothing more than the metal of the bonnet behind it. But even though it did nothing for engine cooling, it looked pretty good.
Even better news was coming. From the launch of the Series 2 EF in late 1995, the more potent powerplant from the XR6 was a standard fitting on all Fairmont Ghias.
And that, if you hadn’t guessed, makes an EF 2 Fairmont Ghia a darned good piece of kit.
The straight-six engine remained at 4.0 litres and still used a single-overhead camshaft and two valves per cylinder. But in XR6 trim, it had a hotter camshaft, revised cylinder head, bigger air intake, an overhauled exhaust system for reduced back pressure and more horsepower.
To be accurate, the Fairmont Ghia didn’t make quite the same power as the XR, although it came within a couple of kilowatts, because Ghia buyers demanded a quieter engine note than did XR6 buyers. The extra baffling may have taken the edge off the on-paper result, but it was impossible to pick on the road. The race for extra refinement also led Ford to develop a twin-walled sump to damp out some of the engine’s noise and vibration.
All Fairmont Ghias were, of course, automatics. But the engine produced the goods so well, and the gearbox itself was so well-sorted, that it all worked very well indeed.
And even if it was an auto, with 162kW on demand at very accessible engine speeds, planting the boot in a Fairmont Ghia with the hot motor still produced the desired effect.
Unless they really wanted the extra refinement of the five-litre V8 engine, the XR-engined Ghia was plenty fast enough for most buyers. And because it was a more efficient design than the V8, not to mention a full litre smaller, it used about one-third less fuel in normal circumstances.
You also got alloy wheels with a Ghia – in this case, classy looking nine-spoke items that didn’t look too sporty – to suit the Fairmont Ghia buyer profile.
When the Ghia was launched as the EF in 1994, 12 months before Ford started fitting the hot motor at no extra charge, the standard equipment list ran to items such as a leather steering wheel, a chrome T-bar handle, leather seat bolsters and wood-grain door inserts, presumably for that authentic gentleman’s carriage look.
There was also power to all windows, compared with only two power windows in the Futurama, an eight-speaker sound system, a trip computer and a power antenna.
In 1995 the upgraded EF 2 specifications added full leather trim, chrome interior door handles, two airbags and a six-stack CD player.
The EL update in late 1996 brought an extra speaker, a limited-slip differential and speed-sensitive power steering.
The limited-slip diff and later manufacturing date stamps the EL as the one to go for if your budget will stretch that far. In the meantime, either of the two XR6-engined variants are better cars than any Fairmont Ghias that went before them.
The extra power aside, the EF 2 and EL models handled better than ever before with only a slight drop in the plush factor. Frankly, the extra security imparted by the slightly firmer ride is a tiny price to pay for more dynamic ability.
For all that, the Ghia was never a hard-edged performance car. Rather, it was a big luxury car that could lift its skirts to suit the conditions or the driver’s mood. When it comes to covering big distances with a minimum of fuss, either the EF 2 or the EL Fairmont Ghia would be very hard to beat.
Big bloke in a shiny suit
‘The Age’ March 2000
The good: Final version of a long-running model, the EL is a well-sorted and well-assembled big Aussie car. Next to a new Falcon, it’s a bargain, too.
The bad: Only downside of buying a second-hand EL in preference to a new AU is that it still is one generation older when trade-in time comes, and valued accordingly.
The verdict: A good example of an EL could give many years of reliable motoring for the average family at a big discount on new car prices.
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5).
Ford couldn’t afford to make any mistakes with the EL Falcon, introduced in September 1996 and planned to be on sale for almost two years before the radically new AU was to replace it.
The company knew Holden would launch its all-new VT Commodore a year or more before the EL had run its course. If Ford was to hold any ground at all in the sales race against the newcomer, its new “old-fashioned” car was going to have to be a good one.
Much was made of the $40 million development cost and the only apparent change being a new-look nose section, but the number one priority was to make the car steer and handle well to overcome criticism of these aspects of the big Ford.
Falcon had been lambasted since it was first introduced in this basic body shape. “Nervous” was a term often used to describe its attitude. It wasnt a dangerous situation, just a feeling in the way it turned into corners. It wasnt even happy going in a straight line if upset in the slightest by uneven roads, cross-winds or drivers who lacked finesse in their steering.
Much of that $40 million (not huge compared to the $200 million-plus cost of developing the all-new model) went on suspension development. And it worked. John Mole, a former engineer with Ford who had moved in 1990 to Tickford to develop the XR models, was called in to head the team developing the suspension.
Mole applied much of what he had learnt at Tickford but while buyers of the modified XR models were prepared to accept some compromises in ride and quietness in exchange for sharper handling, mass-market family car buyers were not.
The EL ended up a compromise, but a very good compromise, between quiet, soft ride and predictable, comfortable handling. So, with a nose job and suspension improvements, plus the expertise gained in building this basic shape for a number of years, the EL finished up a respectable all-rounder.
If you are among those who dont like the appearance of the new AU, then you have the bonus of what might be considered classic big Aussie car styling.
Its the definitive caravan-towing, family-toting large car with Australia-wide parts and service facilities, strength and dependability.
In most cases the 4.0-litre fuel-injected six will do everything you want. Only those with heavy loads to tow really need the 5.0-litre V8, although there are some traditional buyers who just wouldnt have anything else.
And, while we favour manual transmission for smaller cars, the four-speed auto is probably the way to go with these. The auto makes it a much smoother package and the big engines cope well with the vagaries of fluid drive and guesswork shifting that come as part of the package with autos.
Perhaps best of all is the price. Even the most basic of all models in the new AU Falcon range is well into the $30,000s now, and the most expensive are getting up towards $50,000. Good EL models can be had for less than $20,000 in early GLi trim and even the later, top-line models are now under the $30,000 mark. Those are big savings on a new price.
From the base GLi, there is the more up-market Futura, then the sportier XR6 and XR8 models. Wagons come in GLi and Futura versions. Six-cylinder models are available with five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission; V8s are all automatic, except for the XR8, which can be ordered as a five-speed manual.
These cars are now better than they used to be, but they arent totally devoid of mechanical problems.
Buyers should be checking all the usual areas. Look for signs of water or oil leaks from the engine and listen for any undue mechanical noises.
Ensure the car idles smoothly and drives well. Study the operation of the auto transmission, making sure it changes smoothly yet positively and does not show undue slippage. Checking the look and smell of the auto transmission fluid on the dip-stick can give clues to potential problems. A burnt smell, or signs of metal particles, are definite warnings.
Power steering and air-conditioning systems are other areas where faults can occur and are potentially expensive to fix, so check the operation of these also.
The usual close look for any signs of collision damage or rust is a must, and look for any signs of careless servicing. As always, the lower the total kilometres on the odometer the better. And check the vehiclés handbook for regular servicing.
What to look for
Check for undue mechanical noise, any signs of oil or water leaks, or smoke from the exhaust.
Road test for correct operation of the automatic transmission. Feel for any slippage or sloppy ratio changes.
Check the car thoroughly for any signs of rust or badly repaired crash damage that might lead to future rust problems.
Check logbooks and avoid at all costs buying an ex-rental or ex-police car.
Aerobic XR size
‘The Age’ July 1999
FOR: Strong engine performance, general robustness and versatility, spacious interior and load-carrying area, cheap to own and run, excellent handling for wagon.
AGAINST: Engine noisy and rough when used hard, interior trim unattractive, driveline “snatch” bad in manual version, poor headlights.
VERDICT: A tough, high performing, spacious and reasonably economical workhorse that can double as a quasi-sports car. Notably superior to a standard Falcon wagon.
RATING: four **** (out of 5)
In the practical world of wagons, the Falcon XR6 was unique. It had exactly the same level of load-carrying capacity as any common or garden Falcon wagon but added a sporty character via a more powerful six-cylinder engine, a suspension tuned for sharper and more accurate handling and the distinctive grille and headlight treatment of the popular XR6 sedan.
About the only (slight) compromise to practicality was that the lower ride height could have created clearance problems in the most difficult rural conditions. But in much the same way that very few rugged four-wheel-drives ever experience terrain more difficult than roadworks on Parramatta Road, the majority of XR6 wagons were destined to spend most of their driving time on tarmac.
A Falcon wagon is not what would commonly be thought of as an enthusiast’s vehicle, so this was a clever marketing exercise by Ford Australia and its joint venture partner, Tickford Vehicle Engineering.
In many respects it was a better vehicle than its sedan counterpart which, despite Tickford’s best efforts, was still afflicted with some of the nervous handling characteristics which beset the EF Falcon (where the front suspension tuning was out of phase with the rear and the car could feel twitchy in cornering).
The wagon, being built on a longer wheelbase and using a simpler form of rear suspension, was the more stable and reassuring vehicle to drive.
From front-on the XR6 wagon looked precisely like its sedan counterpart, featuring the distinctive quad headlight theme. The only negative here was that this system gave less effective illumination than the standard Falcon single headlights.
The firmer ride was a small price to be paid for the more secure handling and the generally sporty feel (especially for a wagon).
Like any other Falcon wagon the EF XR6 gave heaps of sprawling room for five substantial adults. A dealer-fitted extra rear-facing bench seat was available for those who wanted to carry extra passengers but this compromised the load space and was far from ideally safe (in the event of the common nose-to-tail crash).
The dashboard and fittings of the EF model were superior in appearance and finish to those of earlier models, but the seats were trimmed somewhat garishly and there was still a predominant funereal greyness to the facia.
Engine performance was a strong point. With peak power of 164 kW, the XR6 was the equal of many V8s. Transmission choice was a five-speed manual or the Australian-developed BTR four-speed automatic.
There were slight drawbacks to both. The manual gearbox demanded smoothness and thought from the driver, otherwise driveline “snatch” (a jerky, clunky sensation) marred progress.
The automatic transmission was superb with smooth changes and a choice between power and economy modes. It was remarkably smooth and effortless in operation although there was a slight delay in initial acceleration.
Overhauls though are expensive as taxi-drivers soon found. The good news here is that in private use it is most unlikely that such work would be required below about 200,000 km and even then the job can be done more cheaply now than two or three years ago (thanks to the pioneering work of the taxi industry).
The engine itself was quite harsh, particularly at high revs. And it still sounded like the six fitted to taxis. Fuel economy was surprisingly good for such a big and powerful wagon, especially with the manual transmission.
At 100 km/h, the engine was turning over at little more than 2,000 rpm in fifth gear. Even so, few highway hills would require a downchange, even with a full load of occupants and chattels.
Engine oil leaks from the rear main bearing are quite common. The power steering box may require overhauling on high mileage cars but this is unlikely to cost more than $400.
Taxi drivers report head gasket problems but this is comparatively rare for cars in private use.
A popular XR6 colour was a striking purplish blue known as Cobalt. Ford withdrew it from the market because of quality control problems. So if it’s a Cobalt example you are considering, check the paint to make sure you can’t see through it.
Ford metallic paint also marks very easily. On this criterion the solid red or white are probably the more practical choices if you plan to subject your Falcon wagon to the full rigours of family life.
What to look for
Transmission and steering: Automatic may require servicing; power steering on high-mileage cars may need an overhaul.
Leaks: Loss of engine oil common.
Metallic paint: marks easily.