(first posted 1/26/2018)
(The 26th of January is Australia Day so let’s celebrate with some Australiana.)
Both Ford North America and Ford Australia released controversially-styled replacement large sedans in the second half of the 1990s, the 1996 Taurus and the 1998 AU Falcon. Both saw sales suffer immediately. Both business units then introduced visually overhauled models in the new century. Only one did it right, and it was the far superior car.
Their approaches couldn’t be any more different. First, the similarities. The 2000 Taurus and the 2002 BA Falcon both received a handsome restyling, inside and out, but both used carryover roof stampings and doors and both the Taurus and Falcon wagon remained identical to their predecessors aft of the A-pillar.
That’s where the similarities end. While the Taurus continued down the path of decontenting, the Falcon added content. A lot of it.
Independent rear suspension had always been standard in the Taurus but that hadn’t been the case for the Falcon. In the previous-generation AU, it was standard fitment only on select models and a costly option on others. With the BA, IRS was made standard across the sedan range although the AU’s double-wishbone set-up was nixed in favor of a cheaper “Control Blade” multi-link set-up, similar to that in the Ford Focus. The AU’s double wishbone front suspension was retained, however.
The Falcon’s 4.0 I6 was completely overhauled, becoming the first double overhead cam Falcon engine and the first with variable cam timing. The new engine, christened Barra, produced a class-leading 244 hp at 5000 rpm and 280 ft-lbs at 3250 rpm. It was a distant relative of the original Falcon’s six but its effortless power and smooth delivery were resolutely modern, although fuel economy was mediocre with a combined rating of around 20 mpg. There was also a factory LPG variant, a popular option with cabbies because of the low price of LPG. It was detuned slightly, to 209 hp and 274 ft-lbs.
There were many other mechanical enhancements. The chassis claimed to be 88% stiffer. The brakes used larger diameter discs than before and all Falcons used discs on all four wheels (the Taurus had standard rear drum brakes). The four-speed automatic now also featured a manual shift mode, known as Sequential Sports Shift. Again, this was rolled out across the range, although a five-speed manual remained available in the base XT and the sports models.
XR6 Turbo photo courtesy of Jeremy
One change more visible to shoppers was the BA’s new interior. But for bits and pieces like the B-pillar trim, the Falcon’s interior was all-new and of markedly higher quality. This included soft-touch plastics across the bulk of the dashboard, as well as an elegant and modern center stack. Competition, like the newly revised Holden VY Commodore and Mitsubishi Magna, looked dated overnight.
The AU was competent but the BA’s extensive $AUD500 million overhaul brought the Falcon to a whole new level, the only blight being a 300 pound weight increase (to 3700-3900 pounds). But while the new interior and mechanical enhancements were laudable, the most exciting change was the arrival of a new performance model, the XR6 Turbo. Boasting a turbocharged version of the 4.0 I6, the XR6 Turbo produced 320 hp and 330 ft-lbs., and hit 60 mph in around 6 seconds. The turbo preceded Ford America’s EcoBoost engines by several years, although there was nothing terribly “eco” about the XR6 Turbo—with a combined 17 mpg, the turbo was only around 1 mpg more economical than the V8.
The BA’s V8 was also new but its arrival seemed to be lost in the buzz of the turbo. Derived from the North American Modular V8, the BA’s 5.4 mill produced 300 hp at 4750 rpm and 350 ft-lbs at 3250 rpm. An even more powerful version, called Boss, was standard in the XR8 and added an extra 50 hp and 20 ft-lbs. If you wanted even more performance, Ford Performance Vehicles had a line of vehicles with tuned turbo I6s and V8s.
The V8 became less relevant with the BA, the XR6 Turbo capturing the attention of shoppers. You could still, however, option the V8 in almost every Falcon sedan, wagon or ute, which underscored the dizzying number of options BA shoppers had. Case in point: the base XT (above). You could select three different suspension tunes – standard, the Fairmont Ghia’s sport-luxury tune, or a heavy-duty tune with higher ground clearance – as well as two different engines and two different transmissions. This kind of smorgasbord variety wouldn’t last, as Ford understandably pruned the range over the following years.
XR-branded models received a unique front fascia with more aggressive “quad” headlights, fog lights and a larger front air dam; out the back, the rear diffuser was different and all XR models had a rear spoiler. If you wanted the sporty look of the V8 XR8 or the XR6 Turbo but didn’t want to pay as much (at the dealer or at the pump), you could buy an XR6 with the sport-tuned suspension and the regular inline six. With the BA, the XR6 models became even more popular with both private buyers and as company cars. Lurid colors added to the appeal, with XR models available in hues like bright yellow, lime green, and purple.
The base XT remained the car of choice for taxi companies, while the family-focused Futura and the slightly more plush Fairmont seemed to recede into the background. The sedan range was topped by the Fairmont Ghia (above). Both the Fairmont and Fairmont Ghia used a slightly different center stack design, the latter adding a color screen and optional satellite navigation.
Ford saw the writing on the wall for the station wagon, pitching the Falcon wagon more to fleets. Accounting for only around 20% of sales, the wagons were workhorses and retained the AU wagon’s live rear axle and leaf spring rear suspension. Although Ford had offered sporty and luxurious Falcon wagons in the past, the BA wagon range was limited to the lower-end XT and Futura models. Sales continued to dwindle but there was just enough fleet demand for the Falcon wagon to continue it all the way up to 2010, even as the sedans and utes were replaced by the 2008 FG Falcon.
Less successful were the BA Fairlane and LTD. As before, these were long-wheelbase sedans on the Falcon platform with a more formal roofline. The BA Fairlane/LTD, compared to its garish, chrome-laden predecessor, was anodyne and looked little different to the Falcon—even the taillights were carried over.
Sales were down for the new Fairlane/LTD despite the introduction of a sporty V8 model called G220. These long-wheelbase models seemed to sell exclusively to staunch traditionalists, limousine companies and government fleets – typically only a few thousand units a year overall – and Holden was doing a better job soaking up that small pool of sales with its Statesman and Caprice. Ford’s LWB twins were axed in 2007.
Finally, there was the ute. Even though these were workhorses like the wagon – right down to the rear leaf springs – Ford offered sporty XR6, XR6 Turbo and XR8 utes. High-performance Commodore and Falcon utes were like the Mustangs and Camaros of the Australian market, albeit a lot more practical. As tradies continued to switch to crew-cab Japanese utes, the remaining sales for Aussie utes skewed heavily towards the performance variants.
The cab chassis variant was restricted to lower-end XL and XLS models although it was available with the V8.
Critics were mightily impressed with the BA Falcon. With a refined engine, direct steering, a compliant ride, and balanced handling, even the base XT was a pleasure to drive and, with the new interior, the lowliest model was even a nice place to sit. The BA received myriad plaudits from Aussie journalists and Wheels gave the BA its prestigious Car of the Year award for 2002. They even took an XR6 Turbo to Europe to be test-driven by journalists from publications like Auto Motor und Sport. These critics praised the big, heavy sedan for its superb chassis (“An E39 5-Series for 20 grand”, said one), although one dinged it for its slightly “American” steering.
Lest you think the sometimes-breathless praise of Aussie automotive journalists or my own purchase of a BA Falcon has clouded my judgment, I acknowledge the car had its flaws, chiefly inconsistent build quality. My 2004 XR6 was well screwed together, although its paintwork was mediocre and its air-conditioning was temperamental. The doors also didn’t close with the solid ‘thunk’ you might have heard in a Japanese sedan. But while there were the occasional build quality lapses, the BA proved to be as reliable and durable as Falcons past. Rode hard by taxi drivers and cops, BAs have been known to clock up to 500,000 miles. Many Falcon and Commodore buyers have used their cars for towing, and a BA sedan could tow up to 5000 pounds.
No matter how good the BA was, it couldn’t change the reality that the full-size sedan segment was in decline. The Falcon’s sales slide was momentarily reversed, the new model reaching a high of 73,220 sales in 2003 – its best tally since 1996 and a whopping 20k increase over 2001. Thereafter, sales fell and so too did those of the Commodore.
The Commodore had broken sales records in the 1990s, storming to 94k units in 1998. Sadly, even after the Falcon’s extensive redesign, the Commodore continued to outperform it in the market even though it couldn’t outperform it on the road. Its standard 3.8 V6 was a gruff performer with much less torque than the smooth Falcon I6 albeit marginally better fuel economy. Despite this, and its inferior interior and lack of a turbo model, the Commodore would outsell the Falcon every year until both ended production. The AU Falcon had torpedoed Falcon sales and by the time Ford had introduced the vastly improved BA, the full-size market had begun its inexorable decline.
Although the BA couldn’t outsell the Commodore, it spawned an offspring that Holden simply couldn’t match: the Territory crossover, available with all-wheel-drive and seven seats. The story of the Territory, Ford Australia’s last true success story, is one best told in more detail another day.
Over three years, Ford produced 281,197 BA Falcon sedans, utes and wagons. In late 2005, Ford introduced a mildly revised BF-series with some mechanical refinements such as a slick, new six-speed auto from ZF. Even though the basic platform was now several years old (with some components that pre-dated the 1998 AU model), so good was the overall package that the Ford continued to best the 2006 VE Commodore in some comparison tests, which must have disappointed Holden after they had spent a billion dollars on their new, export-oriented Commodore.
In its pursuit of better fuel economy, Detroit had invested heavily in front-wheel-drive platforms but here in Australia, we kept doing what we did best: large, rear-wheel-drive sedans. When GM wanted a rear-wheel-drive sport sedan for the Pontiac range, they contacted their Australian operations. Ford Australia wished it had been so lucky but Ford’s head honchos never granted their Antipodean arm the left-hand-drive export program it deserved. By the 2000s, it was probably too late anyway, with ever-diminishing returns in the segment both in North America and Australia.
The Falcon had long been on borrowed time, Ford Australia executives having to plead their case to global headquarters every few years to justify its continued survival. The real nail in the Falcon’s coffin was the S197 Mustang debacle. Ford had intended for the Falcon to share its platform with the 2005 Mustang, or at least the rear half of it. Eventually, Ford would have dropped its locally-manufactured inline sixes and switched to an imported Duratec V6, when it would have picked up the front half of the new global RWD platform.
Unfortunately, Ford’s engineers in both countries disagreed on the placement of the Control Blade rear suspension – three abreast seating was a higher priority for the Aussie engineers, naturally – and so the two vehicles diverged in the development process (and the Mustang ended up sticking with a live rear axle, anyway). Shortly thereafter, Ford fell into financial peril and any hopes of a global RWD platform were dashed. There would be one last overhaul of the Falcon platform – the fairly extensive 2008 FG redesign – but then that was it for rear-wheel-drive sedans with the Ford logo.
Not only was the BA Falcon far superior to the contemporary North American Taurus, it was superior to the Crown Victoria in every measure. It was just as rugged – as Aussie cabbies and cops will attest – and it was more refined, more powerful and more fuel-efficient. It had a larger range, including an honest-to-goodness station wagon and a hardy ute, and it was also better-equipped and better-finished.
Alas, the recipe that Ford Australia had perfected simply wasn’t what Aussie buyers wanted to be served. The Falcon was too big and thirsty for some, not versatile enough for others. Other buyers associated Falcons with their fathers or thought of them only as cars for taxi drivers and bogans.
It’s a shame. The BA Falcon was a damn good car.