Holden Commodore versus Ford Falcon – a decades-old stoush ends here.
On the day of the Holden VF Commodore launch it was announced that the Ford Falcon would be killed off when the Australian manufacturing operations wind down in October 2016. This seemingly straightforward comparison test between two old foes suddenly asked for a new angle.
But by the time the blue Holden VF Commodore SV6 and lime Ford Falcon XR6 had bustled west of the Sydney CBD, ascended and descended the Blue Mountains, then hit the craggy roads of the NSW western plains, the cars had demanded the angle be changed again.
There would be no sorrow over the loss of an Aussie icon (yes, there will be an updated Falcon next year, but this is the final generation), or musings about the lack of consistent government policy and intelligent debate in the media regarding local industry. The end game will simply be a 1000km thrash on roads for which these two broad-shouldered, six-cylinder, rear-wheel-drive sedans were designed.
SV6 and XR6 were chosen because the entry-level sports grades are the most popular with private buyers. The Commodore and Falcon may no longer be the two most popular cars by a country mile, but their womb-like cabins will still be home to thousands of families around the country.
Holden only had a six-speed manual SV6 available – ours was one of the first 24 cars to run down the production line – but we spent plenty of time in the more popular V6 automatic, in Calais V guise, around the same time as this test.
The Holden VF Commodore SV6 manual is $6800 cheaper than before, at $35,990, and 30kg lighter, at 1688kg.
Its 3.6-litre direct-injected V6 (below) still produces 210kW of power and 350Nm of torque, but the maximum kilowatts now arrive 300rpm higher in the rev range (at 6700rpm) and peak Newton metres are delivered 100rpm lower (at 2800rpm).
The VF SV6 is now claimed to be 7.2 per cent more fuel efficient than VE Series II SV6, with 9.0L/100km combined consumption.
Technically the Ford Falcon XR6 costs $39,990 with a manual, or $40,990 with the six-speed automatic tested here. An optional ($4500) Luxury Pack also added 19-inch alloy wheels, leather trim inserts, satellite navigation, dual-zone climate control and a reverse camera.
Nobody, of course, pays retail for a Falcon, and the XR6 manual is currently being offered for $34,990 driveaway.
Compared with its V6 rival, the venerable 4.0-litre straight six-cylinder engine (below) makes a lesser 195kW at a lower 6000rpm, but a heftier 391Nm at 3250rpm. At 1710kg, the XR6 is 22kg heavier, the Falcon body itself being 8mm longer, but also 30mm thinner and the roofline 9mm lower than the Commodore.
Since the arrival of the VE Commodore in 2006, and the FG Falcon in 2008, there’s been a simple answer to question of which model was best – if you wanted a standard six-cylinder, buy the Ford, if you wanted a performance model, choose the V8 Holden.
The Holden ‘Alloytec’ or ‘HFV6’ has never been a sweet engine. It is a technically contemporary engine, with an aluminium block, dual overhead camshafts and variable valve and cam timing. But the 3.6-litre and particularly the entry 3.0-litre struggle to provide the low-down torque characteristics for which the previous 3.8-litre iron-block pushrod lump was known.
The newer V6 also sounds thrashy at the upper end of the rev range, right where it needs to be to perform – witness the 6700rpm power peak.
With the VF Commodore, however, the decade-old engine feels transformed. Holden worked on increasing firewall insulation – adding what it calls ‘good mass’ – and it has worked.
All the harsh low-frequency noises have been eliminated to allow only the meat of the revving engine into the cabin. There’s a newfound growl that, while not the most exciting noise, is more pleasurable and refined.
Reduced kerb weight and a slightly altered torque curve allows the V6 to feel more effortless down low, too. The SV6 is tractable at 1000rpm, and pulls from 2000rpm. It is also quicker and keener to rev. Finally, the 3.6-litre genuinely feels like a sweet, sporting engine.
The manual transmission lets the side down slightly.
It doesn’t suit the engine’s characteristics, with too-wide spacing between gears – it has a wider spread than the manual in the torquier V8! – translating in tight corners to the engine either bumping its limiter in second, or way outside its power band in third.
Experience with the revised automatic reveals that the more popular transmission option is the superior one; the overhauled Sport mode holds gears promptly and shifts back gears when braking.
As ever, the Ford 4.0-litre is a big torquer and a lazy performer, but in a good way. It flattens hills on light throttle at low revs, or extends to 6000rpm with plenty of punch. It’s smoother than the Holden V6, but louder.
The arrival of the turbo four-cylinder engine in Falcon has also exposed other refinement shortfalls. Where the 2.0-litre is silent at idle and revs quickly to redline, the 4.0-litre streams plenty of vibrations through the steering wheel at idle, is grumbly on light throttle and slower to rev.
Although the German-made ZF six-speed automatic continues to be an intuitive, slick partner to the engine in normal duties, its Performance mode is far too relaxed for hard driving. For the first time since the gearbox was introduced in Falcon a decade ago, it is beaten by a GM automatic.
Both engines and transmissions shrug off the urban grind, Sydney’s motorway ring road, and the slog over the Blue Mountains as big sixes should, barely needing throttle or revs, and being completely unobtrusive. On the freeway, the Falcon trip computer reads 8.4L/100km.
Heavy rain makes the Bells Line of Road a greasy affair, but the twisty descent into Lithgow – where every second car is still a Holden or Ford – serves as a reminder of the FG-series Falcon’s strengths.
Its steering is still wonderfully meaty and communicative. The sports suspension just ties the Falcon down enough compared with the regular models, yet doesn’t ruin the ride quality. Even on aggressive 35-aspect 19-inch wheels the suspension skims over small imperfections and doesn’t jar over larger ones.
Long-radius left and right bends prove a test of grip levels. Feed in throttle and the Falcon will just edge sideways, its electronic stability control proving masterful, being subtle when the driver’s inputs are subtle and permitting a fair amount of slip.
Over the blind crests and deep undulations of the Rydal Sodwalls Tarana Road – connecting that trio of towns – the Falcon reveals a slight lack of body control that could only be considered so if the excellent regular ride was ignored. But the ESC still flashes when the body flusters. Arguably, though, the Falcon XR6 strikes the most cohesive ride and handling balance of the range.
The five-year-old FG remains a terrific touring car.
It’s only after swapping into the VF Commodore SV6 that the newer car’s claimed advancements truly feel like quantum leaps.
The Holden is always hewn into the tarmac, never once hinting at float and troubling its stability control. Yet it is also markedly quieter and calmer on country roads. The biggest areas where the Commodore doesn’t feel truly premium is with its coarse-chip road noise, and on smooth bitumen there is some wind rush around the doorsills. But it is so much quieter compared with the Ford.
As wonderfully sorted as the Falcon suspension is, it’s both floatier and harsher than the Commodore’s. The VF has an uncanny ability to soak up the worst of country roads while remaining glued to the surface.
It feels lighter on its feet, and that lightness extends to the steering, which is so good it makes the Ford’s feel needlessly heavy. The SV6 steering has much sharper turn-in than before, complementing its pointier front end. Where the FG XR6 feels heavier, softer, but still comfortable, the VF SV6 feels light, tight, sharp … and still terrifically comfortable.
It is 150km between Oberon, near the iconic Bathurst in NSW’s mid-west, and Goulburn, the major stop on the Hume Highway. This is where the VF Commodore hammers home its lead.
The road passes grey gums, straight for miles if not for the odd long-radius curve here or there. Around the middle, at the Abercrombie National Park, hairpins flick tight around the mountain, before the road dances across ridgelines, intersected by tight left- and right-handers.
Ever since we tried the Falcon four-cylinder, and were blown away by its light-feeling front end and staggeringly sturdy turn-in, the Falcon six-cylinder has especially felt a bit blunt. It hangs on well in sweepers, and still feels well balanced, but it leaves us longing for an XR4 Turbo that will probably never appear…
With no four cylinder in the range, the Commodore SV6 has the sharper front end compared with its V8 range siblings. The VF still isn’t what you’d call hot-hatch agile, but it shrinks around its driver, is predictable at its limit and nicely adjustable beyond it.
Its stability control calibration feels more reactive than before, however. Where previously the VE allowed some throttle steer out of tight hairpins, the VF ESC cuts power early, making the limited-slip differential of the SV6 largely redundant.
Flick the electronics and the dynamics remain as rewarding as ever. Holden claims 60 per cent of chassis components have been changed, including casting the front control arms and suspension knuckles out of aluminium to contribute to a 6kg weight saving per front corner.
But in reality, the handling feels little different to that of a VE it supersedes. The VE was the model to really take Commodore handling into 21st century and the VF benefits from most of the original big work.
It’s the VF Commodore, however, that takes the nameplate into the 21st century in terms of interior design and technology.
Above: Holden Commodore SV6 dash layout.
In throwing away every bit of the cabin except the roof grab handles, centre console lid and rear air vents, Holden has also made the Commodore feel like a semi-premium and thoroughly modern offering.
The carbonfibre-look trim applied on the doors and dash of the SV6 (and SS) looks both cool and high quality. The smaller steering wheel is nice to hold. The climate controls are intuitive and glow a soft white light, to match the soft lighting inside each cabin door handle. Even the red-backed gauges match the colour on the standard eight-inch touchscreen, which is a high-resolution and highly intuitive unit.
The rear seat of the Commodore is extremely wide and roomy, with a supportive and comfortable bench. It is a proper five seater. As with the Falcon, however, there are no rear headrests, while the Commodore only gets a centre ski-port, not split-fold backrest capability. Those seeking practicality can choose the SV6 Sportwagon for $2000 more.
Above: Holden Commodore SV6 rear seat and boot space.
On the technology front ‘apps’ functionality allows internet streaming of music among many other functions. Voice control works beautifully, allowing voice-recognition of a specific artist, playlist, album or song, or with an iPhone to use Siri voice-help technology.
Every Commodore can park itself, in parallel or perpendicular spaces. Blind-spot detection and forward collision alert also feature.
Any half-decade-old car will struggle to compete with that sort of onslaught.
Above: Ford Falcon XR6 dash layout.
So the Falcon XR6 does feel downmarket by comparison.
But the blue-lit dials of the XR6 are still cool, the seven-inch touchscreen is decently intuitive although the optional sat-nav looks (is) aftermarket, and the console itself remains ergonomic. At least at night, the mismatched and often ill-fitting plastics, and brittle edges are out of sight…
The Falcon’s rear-seat is nowhere near as roomy as the Commodore’s, both in terms of legroom and headroom, but the seat itself is comfortable. Its 535-litre boot is also 40L larger than the Holden’s and the Ford uniquely gets a 60:40 split-fold rear-seat to aid practicality. Both score with a rear centre arm rest and air vents.
Above: Ford Falcon XR6 rear seat and boot space.
Just behind the bulging fibreglass balls of the Big Merino in Goulburn, we refill the thoroughly dirtied blue and green duo. Across almost 500km the Commodore SV6 returned 14.5L/100km and the Falcon XR6 12.1L/100km.
Remember what we said about an epic thrash? The Holden’s higher fuel result may be as much about its lust for revs as the fact its chassis demands harder driving.
The Commodore never came near its limits, but the Falcon certainly did trying to keep up.
What both the Ford Falcon and Holden Commodore continue to prove is that this duo fit glove-tight to Australian conditions in a way that many imports simply don’t.
If they do, they either don’t offer the space or cost a helluva lot more.
The Falcon absolutely departs as a high watermark for the company’s local engineering talent, and had they been given the opportunity there’s little doubt they would equal or better the sparkling new Holden.
The Holden VF Commodore SV6 really is the shining new benchmark for Australian-made vehicles.
It is also a shining example of why we should support an industry that can create truly brilliant cars to drive across our country, and not just rely on an industry that can dig stuff out of it.
Sorry, no politics. Right now it’s the Falcon that needs one final salute…
This comparison review first appeared in the June issue of the CarAdvice iPad magazine app. Head to the Apple App Store to download the entire issue.
Click the Photos tab for more images. Photography by Matyas Fulop.
Ford Falcon XR6
Engine: 4.0-litre six-cylinder petrol
Power: 195kW at 6000rpm
Torque: 391Nm at 3250rpm
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Fuel consumption: 9.9L/100km (12.1L/100km on test)
CO2 emissions: 236g/km
Holden Commodore SV6
Engine: 3.6-litre V6 petrol
Power: 210kW at 6700rpm
Torque: 350Nm at 2800rpm
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Fuel consumption: 9.0L/100km (14.5L/100km on test)
CO2 emissions: 215g/km