Hobart's Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) was used as a media launch pad for the new Ford Falcon EcoBoost, though it's unlikely Ford Australia intended there to be an analogy made between the new, modern four-cylinder engine now offered as an alternative to its trustworthy but aged locally built six-cylinder.
The four-cylinder 'EcoBoost' engine is a contemporary unit that follows the current, and unstoppable, trend for downsizing. It employs high-pressure direct fuel injection, variable independent timing on its dual camshafts, and turbocharging to help compensate for the lower number of cylinders.
As with other car manufacturers reducing the size of its engines, Ford says its smaller powerplant offers similar performance to a bigger engine but, crucially, with better fuel economy.
In this case, that bigger engine would be a six-cylinder, though Ford Australia says it remains committed to its Geelong-made inline 4.0-litre.
With the Ford Falcon continuing to haemorrhage sales and spiral out of the Top 10 vehicle sales charts that was not so long ago a seemingly permanent home, the new Ford Falcon EcoBoost model is seen as a potential white knight – or a “game changer” as Ford puts it.
Time will tell whether Ford Australia has made the right call to abandon the original plan to build the Focus small car at Broadmeadows and instead combine taxpayer money – from a $42m Federal Government contribution - with Ford Motor Company investment on more fuel efficient versions of its homegrown Falcon and Territory SUV models.
The turbo diesel version of the Ford Territory introduced in April 2011 is already paying dividends in sales thanks to its clear consumption advantage over the petrol inline six.
Can the turbo petrol four-cylinder have a similar effect on Ford Falcon sales? That’s unlikely given the Territory is a vehicle type - SUV - that consumers clearly want, and the Falcon … well, much less so, shall we say.
However, for those who do want a large car – and not necessarily because it’s wearing a blue oval badge – the more pertinent question is whether the new, smaller-capacity EcoBoost engine is a viable choice for Australians.
After a prototype drive late last year and a production car drive of the Ford Falcon EcoBoost in Tasmania this week, the answer is an emphatic yes. But you would probably like a more detailed assessment than that.
If fuel efficiency has been one of the key factors leading to the mass exodus of buyers from large cars, the EcoBoost four-cylinder at least gives Ford dealers some bragging rights in terms of economy over rival cars.
The Ford Falcon EcoBoost XT , the entry-level model that should now prove to be even more popular with fleet buyers, has official consumption of 8.1 litres per 100km (and CO2 emissions of 192g/km). (Though it should be noted the EcoBoost’s figures, including outputs, are based on the use of 95 RON premium unleaded.)
The other Ford Falcon variants that get the smaller engine are the G6 and G6E, achieving a figure of 8.5L/100km because extra features make them slightly heavier than the XT and don’t share the base model’s special lower-rolling resistance tyres that eek out more efficiency.
Small engines and big cars are an unnatural combination in Australia, but the Ford Falcon EcoBoost is a car that can change perceptions if it’s given a chance.
Despite having half the capacity of the built-in-Victoria 4.0-litre, the made-in-Spain 2.0-litre EcoBoost four-cylinder is not far off the six-cylinder’s power and torque outputs of 195kW and 391Nm.
The four-cylinder turbo offers up 179kW at 5500rpm, and 353Nm of torque at 2000rpm.
It’s not a perfectly flat torque curve from there, but the consistently elevated line on Ford’s engine graph is confirmed behind the wheel with a sufficiently meaty mid-range that delivers effortless overtaking when required and relaxed cruising at other times.
Some lag was noticeable during a racetrack exercise – which allowed back-to-back tests to be conducted with the six-cylinder that in that scenario was clearly a bit gruntier and linear in its power delivery – but less so in real world driving.
Whether in the suburbs or on the open road, there’s immediacy to the Ford Falcon EcoBoost’s throttle pedal at lower revs, with pace building smoothly and progressively as the driver applies more right-foot pressure.
A mixture of light and heavy throttle applications during the launch drive in and around Hobart produced an average of 9.0L/100km in our G6E, with a fellow tester recording 8.2L/100km in the same car. On the same drive, a six-cylinder petrol Falcon would have been expected to send consumption well into double figures, troubling the teens.
Zero to 100km/h acceleration tests at the racetrack also suggested there’s little reason for buyers to choose the six-cylinder purely for performance benefits.
We clocked 6.74 seconds in the Ford Falcon EcoBoost and a 6.71 in an LPG six-cylinder Falcon, before heavy rain ruined a comparison with the regular six. Other test runs by media, though, produced consistent results where the normally aspirated petrol six had an advantage of less than a tenth of a second (with both the four- and six-cylinder petrols using premium unleaded).
Ford Australia’s engineers have also fiddled with the Falcon’s suspension for the EcoBoost, primarily catering for the slight shift in weight distribution (from 56/44 to 54/46 per cent front/rear) resulting from the smaller engine that weighs 64kg less than the six-cylinder and sits slightly further back in the engine bay.
Spring rates are stiffened front and rear, but the Falcon EcoBoost remains a relatively soft set-up that, while not perfect at absorbing urban road irregularities and prone to some body roll in corners, has an easy-going suppleness that complements the effortless nature of the engine while still providing confident and predictable handling.
The Ford Falcon FG is by now a well-known package – one improved, particularly on the safety side, last year with the Series II update.
Further improvements are promised up to 2016 as part of another government assistance package, this time a $103m co-investment announced at the 2012 Detroit motor show in January.
If the Falcon is to continue beyond that date – and there are no guarantees from Ford that it will – Ford Australia faces another decision about whether to extend the inline 4.0-litre six’s lifespan further still by making the necessary investment to make it comply with Euro V emissions regulations coming into force in 2016.
The EcoBoost four-cylinder could comply tomorrow, Ford says, making another argument against the bigger engine that does at least have one clear advantage: a towing capacity advantage of 700kg (2300 v 1600kg).
That and consumer sentiment. A four-cylinder didn’t work for the Holden Commodore in the 1980s, but have time and mindsets changed sufficiently in Australia for an engine more typically associated with a small hatchback to be embraced by large-car buyers beyond environmentally and fiscally conscious fleet purchasers?
Pricing won’t influence the matter, because the four-cylinder isn’t cheaper than the six; Ford Australia has priced both identically, starting at $37,235 for the XT.
So it could well be people power, not engine power, that will determine the fate of these engines.