Car review:Ford Falcon R6 Ute
LISTEN to some critics harping on in the latest utility-focussed round of the never-ending Holden versus Ford stoush and you would think that the VE Commodore version is just a show pony while the new FG Falcon is the only true blue Aussie Ute.
Could this be true? Has Holden forsaken its loyal buyer base garnered since 1950? Is Ford – inventor of the ‘coupe utility’ back in the 1930s – now the only provider of a real homegrown workhorse?
The truth is not really and no, despite the fact that Holden no longer provides an Australian one-tonne Ute while some of the latest Falcon models can cope with up to 1240kg of payload and tow a 2300kg trailer or caravan.
It’s just that the Blue Oval is a little more ‘blue collar’ in the more extreme end of Ute functionality. In other words, it can work a bit harder.
Backing this statement up is a live axle and leaf-spring rear suspension set-up that is as tough as Grandpa’s Axe, and just as old.
As differing philosophies are at work here, so we as consumers should be grateful at the choice on offer. Now, more than ever, there are real differences to both products that should make the decision of which one to buy easier than mere brand bias – or at least more logical.
Work over play, go Ford. Play over work, it’ll be the Holden.
Yet (and here’s the spanner in the works) both cars – and they are exactly that since there are no ladder chassis or truck bits like you get in the Thai-made Ford Ranger or Holden Colorado – are probably closer than ever as far as driveability and refinement are concerned, as ably demonstrated by the R6 Styleside-box (steel tub) Ute tested here, which is the direct replacement for the AU to BF II XLS ute.
This is the every-person’s Ford Ute, designed for weekday yakka and weekend play.
As with all of the company’s new-generation Utes, this one is 10mm longer than the model it replaces, plus 63mm wider and 38mm taller, while the Styleside-box tray is slightly shorter at 1843mm. But the width between wheelarches grows slightly to 1224mm.
Ford sticks with leaf spring rear suspension because it is better for big loads, with the one-tonne version able to carry and tow 465kg and 700kg more respectively than the most capable VE (Omega) Ute.
Nevertheless, FG suspension improvements include stiffened three-pin shackles in the rear for better control and monotube shock absorbers on all models bar the one-tonners (which use the more compact twin-tube items that is better for that model’s suspension travel needs).
Just because the rear suspension is Industrial Revolution stock, it doesn’t mean that the newest Falcon Ute is an engineering anachronism.
Like the FG sedan that spawns it, there is a new, Ford Territory SUV-style, high-tech front-end set-up called Virtual Pivot Control Link, which – with the aid of another set of monotube shock absorbers – helps provide surer, more responsive steering than even the acclaimed VE Ute can muster – particularly in the R6, since it uses a variation of the firmer XR-series ‘sports’ suspension tune. Ford, just in case you didn’t know, does this aspect of dynamics extremely well.
Combined with the redesigned rack-and-pinion steering set-up, there are impressive levels of feedback waiting for the humble Falcon Ute buyer. Maybe Ford should add the word ‘ribbed’ to its description to hammer home how pleasurable this car feels.
The R6 corners with a competence that is not expected from a vehicle of its ilk, turning in with a measured responsiveness and flowing faithfully through wider turns.
Unfortunately, the absorbent ride that is so impressive on smooth roads turns busy and uneven on rougher surfaces, with the rear end becoming more skittish if the Ute is unladen. Here, the independently sprung VE Ute is more composed and definitely the comfier car to be in, although the Falcon is nowhere near as bad as its specification might suggest.
Then there is the latest (and perhaps final) iteration of Ford’s evergreen in-line six-cylinder petrol engine.
This 195kW 4.0-litre twin-cam 24-valve variable-valve unit can sound a tad raucous at higher revs, so it isn’t as smooth or sonorous as a BMW, but for instant thrust forward and strong mid-range power delivery, Ford’s in-line ‘6’ is in a class of its own. That’s what having 391Nm of torque on tap will do for you.
Mated to a slick new five-speed automatic gearbox, performance is provided in huge and quite satisfying waves from the word go, spiriting the car away with effortless ease.
Fuel consumption is fine for the amount of oomph this car has – we averaged better than 12.0L/100km.
Ford also offers an E-Gas single-fuel LPG option for $2400, which drops to $1400 when the government subsidy is applied. This engine produces 156kW and 371Nm and features a range of component upgrades to run properly on LPG.
We strongly recommend the addition of the $750 traction control option.
Amazingly, considering how light the unladen rear is, how primitive the rear suspension is and how the test car lacked the $500 ESC stability control option, launch acceleration with traction control is not the messy, shuddering or tail-wagging affair that it probably is without it.
Even when trying to join fast-moving traffic, the Falcon Ute will keep its composure and power forward with little fuss or drama, keeping stable and true as long as the roads are reasonably smooth and dry.
Of course, our sticky (if not quite wide enough for those wide rear haunches) 225/55 R16 tyres – specifically designed for the R6 – helped out, but the Ford is not a handful to control.
On wet roads, you must feather the throttle a lot more carefully, for the rear wheels will spin, even when speeding up to overtake, for instance, though this isn’t nearly as dramatic as it sounds.
As with the FG sedan, the Ute’s brakes have a long-travel pedal action that may feel disconcerting to the uninitiated, but they do work fine and have a strong, progressive feel.
Also shared with the sedan is the Ute’s cabin, making it one of the light commercial vehicle world’s most civilised for design, presentation, and layout. It’s the most refined Ute cabin ever offered in Australia.
From the back window forward, there is nothing to betray the fact that this is a large pick-up vehicle, so accommodating is the front half of the latest version of a model sold here continuously since May 1961.
Excellent instrumentation, backed up by the now-essential large digital readout to match the analogue speedometer, makes driving in speed camera-crazed Australia more relaxing.
The centre info screen is similar to the VE Commodore’s in that it supplies a range of trip, economy and car-related data, as well as access to a host of functions like ‘overspeed’ and lighting settings to help improve the overall driving experience.
Great front seats, amply bolstered and supportive in all the right areas, ably look after comfort, as does a driving position that – with its reach and tilt steering column – should help most find the ideal position ahead of the attractive and pleasant steering wheel.
We liked the smart placement of the power window and electric mirror controls, the plethora of storage solutions, ranging from the extremely deep centre console bin to the door bins, the audio auxiliary plug and cupholder placements, as well as the quality look and feel of the fabric door inserts and silver dash and door trim inserts. We also liked the audio capabilities on offer.
Conversely, while the centre console is contemporary, mostly functional with its easy-to-reach controls and high-set info screen, and has a quality feel to it, the fan and temperature switches are fiddly. They may be different, but better to use they are not.
Unlike Holden’s simple seat-tilt mechanism, the Ford’s is fiddly and not intuitive to use – although, again in contrast to the VE Ute with its clever and unique rear storage area, there is little call to get there unless you need to access the well-integrated jack.
There simply is not as much seat travel for very tall occupants as the Holden, either.
So, while the Falcon’s interior is more appealingly car-like to behold than the Holden’s, it lacks the VE’s ultimate functionality.
But the VE is as dire as the FG in its reversing or lane-changing vision, which is severely compromised by the thick pillars immediately to the side of the driver’s head, even though there is a window there. It just doesn’t do the job.
Further back, the Ute bit of the FG has seen improvements compared to its predecessors, thanks to the implementation of an innovative tonneau cover system.
The traditional exterior plug and elastic loop securing system for a tonneau is replaced by a snap-lock style system comprising a plastic seal that clips into place. The difference here compared to the similar item found on the VE Ute is a unique secondary fixing system allowing for the cover to accommodate bulkier items, although this new system doesn’t stay in place when partly open.
A new hard-tonneau cover has also been devised with a sturdier single lock replacing the flimsy twin locks of the previous models.
As all Styleside-box Utes come standard with a plastic tub liner and moveable tie-down points, there is no problem loading and unloading, while the sturdy drop-down tailgate is sturdy enough to stand on.
On the safety front, the Falcon trumps the Commodore in offering proven life-saving head-protecting side airbags for $600, as part of a safety pack that includes a perimeter alarm.
While all Utes come with dual front airbags, ABS brakes with electronic brake force distribution, air-conditioning, cruise control, power windows/mirrors, automatic headlights, temperature display, MP3 input jack, steering wheel audio controls, trip computer, single-CD sound, and four-way power adjustable seats (with lumbar support adjustment), the R6 additionally includes the XR sports suspension, 16-inch alloy wheels, front foglights, a mild body kit, fabric tonneau cover and sports seats.
So there you have it: a better type of Ute for the owner/driver who needs a proper workhorse, but with many of the comfort and features that were previously denied to this style of vehicle.
We love driving and hate doing hard work, so the VE Ute’s more sophisticated rear suspension – with its more supple ride and greater handling subtleties – is our pick. We also prefer the Holden’s more integrated styling, but many people go the other way.
However, the VE Ute currently lacks head-protection side airbags. Its drivetrain in standard Omega trim is not as smooth or refined as the Ford’s, and nor is its (somewhat roomier and more versatile) cabin as inviting.
What might win people over to the FG Falcon Ute is that few will notice its overall dynamic compromises in everyday driving conditions, and it comfortably outshines the Commodore as a workhorse.