(first posted 5/11/2017) The last Ford Falcon rolled off the Broadmeadows production line on October 6, 2016. The last Holden Commodore will roll off the Elizabeth production line on October 20, 2017. Six decades of Australian automotive manufacturing will come to an end. It’s tragic, it’s disheartening, but maybe it was inevitable. We could talk all day about the cause of death for the Aussie car industry, but let’s instead talk about the product. I’ve had the pleasure of having extensive seat time in both a 2007 Holden VE Calais V 3.6 V6 and a 2009 Ford FG Falcon G6E 4.0 I6, two of the last of these historic lines. How do they compare?
Ford and Holden tended to do one big redesign every seven or so years, with multiple facelifts and enhancements in between. Past Commodore series had used extensively redesigned European Opel Rekord and Omega platforms but the 2006 VE Commodore was a clean-sheet redesign, using an all-new, Australian-engineered platform known as Zeta. The VE was succeeded by the VF in 2013, which featured revised front and rear sheetmetal on sedans (front-only on wagons and utes), all-new interiors, and some new features.
The Falcon series’ evolution was subtler, as each new generation of Falcon generally carried over components from its predecessor. The FG was the final major redesign of the Falcon and launched in 2008 amidst gloomy speculation of its imminent demise. Although it looked similar to the previous BA/BF Falcon, it wore new sheetmetal and rode a revised chassis with a new front suspension and revised IRS. The delightful 4.0 inline six carried over in both naturally-aspirated and turbocharged variants. Ford threatened to replace it with an American 3.5 V6 but this never eventuated. A facelifted FG X arrived in 2014, with new front and rear styling, infotainment, but a carryover interior.
By the time the VE and FG reached the market, large car sales had been dwindling after reaching historic highs in the late 1990s. The Falcon, in particular, had suffered thanks to an unloved redesign (the AU) in 1998. The 2000s saw the emergence and soaring popularity of the crossover and Ford wisely spun-off the Territory from the Falcon platform; Holden’s attempt was the half-baked Adventra, more a Subaru Outback clone than a genuine crossover.
The Calais V and G6E sat at the top of their respective ranges and were priced against entry-level German compact sport sedans. Naturally, one would expect these two to have luxuriously-appointed interiors and, for the most part, they deliver.
The Calais was available in with either an ebony interior or this attractive two-tone cream/gray. While fake wood was standard on the Berlina and long-wheelbase Statesman, the Calais V used silver metal-look trim. The door panels are padded with leather and aqua ambient lighting is employed in the footwells, dramatically elevating the interior over the Omega and Berlina. Those cars’ monochromatic green instrument displays were replaced with a color screen in the dash which displayed air-conditioning and radio details and a diagrammatical view of the car when parking sensors were activated. Power window switches are situated in the center console, a cost-saving measure to aid conversion to left-hand-drive.
The dash top isn’t quite soft-touch but uses a distinctive, almost crosshatch pattern. The metal-look trim is handsome while the headliner is nicely woven.
But the Calais V’s interior isn’t perfect: the lower half of the dash is constructed from hard, grainy plastic; the doors don’t quite close with a solid thunk; and the leather in the cabin is nothing special. The use of faux suede material on the lower parts of the door and center stack was also a puzzling choice, leading to ugly scuffs.
The G6E’s cabin immediately appears more ergonomically sound. The screen is mounted higher on the dash, in the driver’s line of sight, and features a reversing camera; navigation was optional. Deep purple ambient lighting pools in the footwells while LEDs are used for the ceiling lights. Lock and light switches are conveniently located in the center stack, while window switches are logically situated on the doors. Dash plastics are relatively soft to the touch, while the leather-wrapped door panels are a tactile delight.
Both cars are equal in terms of cabin space with plenty of room front and rear, although both have a prominent center hump that impedes middle passenger legroom.
Ford did cut some corners. The headliner is a nice, woven one like the Calais’ but the ceiling light surrounds and sunglass holder are made of rather naff plastic. The steering wheel controls have no backlighting. The passenger seat isn’t power-assisted. Only the driver’s side window has an auto function, and that’s only auto-down. The door courtesy lights look rather like cheap bicycle reflectors instead of the warm, glowing lights of the Calais. The rear seats have only “bumps” instead of three proper headrests like in the Calais. There are no rain-sensing wipers. And the “carbon fiber” on the dash is an odd choice, if relatively inoffensive.
Still, the Falcon imparts a greater feeling of solidity and quality than the Calais, right down to the plush yet supportive leather seats and the solid ‘thunk’ of the doors (which feature nice stitching).
Ford and Holden took two very different approaches to the dynamics of their top-line sedans and Ford’s was the most successful. The VE Calais, for the first couple of years of its run, used the FE2 sport suspension of sporty Commodores like the V8 SS. While this allowed for remarkably good roadholding, the trade-off was a stiff ride. It was a puzzling choice for a luxury sedan and Holden later reversed course, re-introducing a FE1.5 tune that balanced the demands of comfort and handling ability. While the early VE Calais doesn’t cosset over bumps, the solid Zeta chassis handles superbly and the car shrinks around you, making it a delight on a winding road.
The Ford, in comparison, feels less planted at high speeds and in fast corners. Handling is still more than competent, however, with little bodyroll. Where the Ford triumphs is in ride quality, with an impressive feeling of solidity as it softens out ruts and bumps. It’s not floaty but, rather, it feels well-engineered.
Steering in both cars is excellent, with good weighting and road feel, but the cars diverge again in terms of engine and transmission. The French-sourced five-speed in the Calais can be slightly dim-witted at times and the shifts are more noticeable. Fortunately, Holden replaced this with a six-speed automatic in 2010. The FG was also briefly available with a five-speed but the G6E came with a ZF six-speed. The ZF shifts as smoothly as butter and is never caught out of step. A manual shift mode is present on both cars but the G6E ups the ante with a Performance Mode that quickens shifts and makes the car feel notably more responsive.
Not that the Falcon’s six is lacking, mind you. The 4.0 mill produces 261 hp at 6000 rpm and 288 ft-lbs at 3250 rpm. it’s a distant descendant of the American Falcon’s six-cylinder but has been extensively revised and refined countless times over the decades. What’s remarkable is how much more polished it feels than the newer, US-designed 3.6 in the Calais. There’s a rather distinctive whirring engine note that can be heard softly in the cabin but there’s none of the straining sounds of the Holden. The presence of more torque is keenly felt; the Holden’s engine produces an identical 261 hp (at 6500 rpm) and but only 251 ft-lbs (at 2600 rpm).
If your daily commute is in a canyon or on a mountain-top, the Calais’ sport sedan chassis is ideal. But for most top-spec Aussie sedan buyers, the Falcon is the superior choice. While the Calais eventually received a six-speed automatic and a softer suspension, its 3.6 V6 remained. The proposed American 3.5 V6 never made it to the Falcon, leaving the impressive 4.0 I6 and, from 2012, a 2.0 turbocharged EcoBoost four-cylinder. That four-banger had more torque than the Holden’s 3.6 (260 ft-lbs), almost the same horsepower, and achieved greater fuel economy to boot. Despite its superior power figures and delivery, official combined economy figures have the Falcon 4.0 using 10.2 liters per 100 km (23mpg) while the Calais used 11.3 (21mpg). Clearly, newer isn’t always better.
The G6E, at around $AUD47,000, actually undercut the Calais V by $8k and was priced equivalently to the regular Calais. The Calais V hardly offered $8000 worth of additional features, making the G6E the better buy. In fact, for the Calais V’s $54k asking price in 2008, you could have purchased a G6E Turbo with 100 more horses under the hood.
Both the Calais and G6E depreciated heavily, as top-spec Aussie sedans are wont to do, reducing the Falcon’s price advantage. However, the Falcon remains the more sensible purchase for one reason: reliability. The early VE Commodores earned a reputation for costly timing chain repairs while the FG Falcon is regarded as being fairly bulletproof and cheap to repair.
It’s clear the Falcon wins this comparison unless winding road thrills are your chief concern. If we were comparing a 2013 Calais to a 2013 Falcon, the story might be different. The 2013 VF revision brought an improved interior, more features, and slightly more power to the Calais while the Falcon was left to stagnate.
American Curbsiders must be wondering how these two full-size Aussies compare to their counterparts in the US. The 2010 Ford Taurus offered more features and technology, such as adaptive cruise and multi-contour, massaging, ventilated front seats. It also has optional all-wheel-drive. But space efficiency in the big bull is rubbish, with an enormous center stack and console; a high beltline makes the interior feel even more claustrophobic. It also has front-wheel-drive and, in turn, less involving dynamics. The twin-turbo SHO matches the Falcon turbo’s power but falls short in torque by 43 pound-feet. In SHO guise, the Taurus weighs a portly 4368 lbs; the FG Falcon comes in a shade under 3900 lbs.
The Calais’ counterpart in the late noughties would have been GM’s W-Body sedans, against which there is absolutely no contest. Even the comfortable and stylish 2013+ Impala is inferior to the Calais dynamically, with an interior no better than the VF Calais.
GM had the good sense to utilize its Australian division, spawning the Pontiac GTO and G8 and Chevrolet SS from the Commodore. None of those models were exceptionally successful commercially but they helped add rear-wheel-drive excitement and optional V8 power to their assigned divisions. Ford, however, never took advantage of the Aussie Falcon in the same way. While it’s true there were some old components still being used, the final result was vastly superior to anything wearing the Taurus nameplate in the 2000s.
I felt it was appropriate to write this comparison test, to show you how splendid Ford and GM’s Aussie operations had made the Falcon and Commodore by the 21st century and how they could make a more engaging mid/full-size sedan than their North American counterparts. It was also timely to write as the Falcon ended production recently and the Aussie Commodore range will soon join it in the automotive graveyard.
There was another reason I wrote this comparison, too: I bought the Falcon.