Luxury versions of the Ford Falcon and Holden Commodore have for decades enticed Australians into their sumptuous cabins with a clear marketing message.
“World-class luxury” became the tagline that accompanied the very first Holden Calais, the VK of 1984. It was used again two years later to herald the introduction of the turbocharged VL update that supposedly gave “Calais the performance to eclipse even the most expensive European imports”.
The missive is that the Calais, and from a philosophical but less marketing-led position the Fairmont Ghia and subsequently today’s Ford Falcon G6E, can give you the indulgences you want without needing to blow your wallet on a BMW or Mercedes-Benz.
In each case they are more affordable than they have been in years, priced around what the entry-level VE-generation Commodore and FG-generation Falcon grades were when they came out in 2006 and 2008 respectively.
Back around the time former prime minister Bob Hawke gave everyone a day off for winning the America’s Cup, imports were expensive. Irony is that the Europeans that were once smugly marketed by Holden as being overpriced (mind the tariffs) have now forced our home-grown heroes to genuinely try to become globally competitive, and for less.
In terms of the success of that, we now know it wasn’t sustainable economically, but that doesn’t mean that today’s last-of-the-line Calais and Falcon G6E don’t provide a winning formula for consumers. For $40K you’re buying a lot of car in each case, but we’re out to see which one best extends beyond providing chrome and leather to truly deliver luxury for less.
In the heart of the Melbourne CBD where this test begins, nobody looks at the aggressively facelifted new Falcon.
Pulling up to a set of lights on La Trobe Street, my heart sinks when school kids cross the road and not one of them gives the large Ford designed and engineered in their backyard a glance. (When I was in primary school in 1998, many lunchtimes were devoted to crippling kids whose parents owned an AU Falcon.)
It’s on the inside that you wouldn’t give the FG X much of a second look, but there are upsides to this Ford’s 2008 cabin vintage: the Falcon feels anything but bulky around town.
The steering is quite meaty for parking, and you get the odd hydraulic hiss and buzz from the pump that doesn’t smack of second-decade-of-21st-century refinement. However the low beltline and surprisingly neat turning circle make weaving down a tight city carpark easy enough to dismiss the notion that people are turning away from large cars because they are cumbersome.
There is a big, clear reverse-view camera taking centre stage on the 8.0-inch colour touchscreen, and when you click back to ‘D’ you have access to digital radio, handy when you want to listen to what is playing inside your local supermarket (yes, Coles Radio is a station).
The plastics and particularly their fitment don’t convey a modern definition of affordable luxury, particularly when on our test car the stitched leather-look lower door pockets were already starting to peel away at the edge.
Swap to the Calais and it immediately feels two generations ahead.
There is the same-sized colour touchscreen with similarly high resolution and equally intuitive interface. But while apps connectivity is standard, digital radio isn’t available and satellite navigation is optional rather than standard as it is in the G6E.
The switchgear on the steering wheel illuminates at night, where it doesn’t in the Ford that also perches its wheel too low, and the display between the speedometer and tachometer is in colour where its rival uses dated monochrome.
There are high quality leather and lovely suede furnishings in the Holden, though equally there is evidence of cheaper lower materials being used; nothing less or more than you’d expect for the money.
When a front passenger reaches for the seat adjustment, it’ll be via manual levers in the Calais but an electric rocker switch in the G6E that also provides memory buttons for its driver.
It almost places the Ford ahead for equipment, except that the Holden can flash a yellow light in each door mirror to warn you a car is in your blind spot, in addition to automatically twisting the steering wheel to park itself into a spot.
In the latter case, we’re thankful for it because the Calais feels noticeably more broad shouldered and less nimble than the Falcon G6E as we weave through the city, despite lighter and quicker steering that is even sweeter. Equally, however, the Holden feels more premium inside.
Both feel properly premium in other ways as we thread them towards the freeway and out towards the Australian country roads for which both were engineered.
To those who shout that these are dinosaurs, the Ford responds with a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine dubbed EcoBoost, that now costs no more or less than the traditional 4.0-litre six-cylinder made in our own backyard.
So why would you – and why did we – choose the EcoBoost? Well, it may be a bit gravelly at low revs, but it is smooth and distantly quiet through the majority of the rev range where the big six can sound coarse.
The four makes 176kW of power at 5500rpm and 353Nm of torque at 2000rpm, which is down on the six’s 195kW at 6000rpm and 391Nm at 3250rpm. But with a kerb weight of 1656kg, the four is 67kg lighter overall than the six and claimed fuel consumption is lower – 8.7 litres per 100 kilometres combined versus 9.5L/100km.
In reality the Falcon EcoBoost is lighter, more nimble, smoother, quieter and still torquey, though if you tow the grunty I6 is definitely for you (its rated 2300kg braked towing capacity is 200kg up on the Commodore V6 and 700kg higher than its four-cylinder sibling).
Where the four beat the Commodore 3.0-litre V6 for performance and economy in our inaugural FG X Falcon comparison test, the Calais upgrades to a 3.6-litre V6.
It makes 210kW at a peaky 6700rpm and 350Nm at 2800rpm that is almost identical to its rival. The Holden feels immediately more toey off the line than the Ford, and feels faster overall. It provides crisp throttle response as it gets through its weaker mid-range and onto a raucous top end that at least sounds crisp these days.
The Calais weighs a portly 1702kg, with Holden using aluminium for the boot lid and bonnet to bring down weight of the VF generation compared with the VE; where Ford simply used a lighter, high-tech engine to kerb its mass.
Claimed consumption of 9.0L/100km is only a sliver inferior, so the economy match will be an interesting one in this test.
On the freeway each big sedan knows its remit, slinking into the tallest sixth gear of each regular automatic transmission and spinning the engines at a touch over 1700rpm.
The now Chinese-made but German-designed ZF auto in the Falcon remains a smooth and fluent partner to the four-cylinder.
Astonishingly, however, given a long line of delinquent General Motors automatics including that in the VE, the VF’s is better again. It imperceptibly finds lower gears then holds them on hills, and has a Sport mode that immediately detects harder driving and adapts exactly as you’d want it to.
The G6E utilises a carry-over sports-luxury suspension tune, where the Calais has a new-for-VF version called Touring. Whatever the case, they are almost inseparable for their ability to join with armchair-broad and plush seating to deliver lush levels of comfort.
Wearing aggressive 40-aspect tyres and 18-inch wheels, it is the Ford that ultimately nibbles more over imperfect surfaces, but only marginally. The Holden has the same size of tyre, but its sidewall width is greater (50-aspect) and this no doubt contributes to its superb compliance over every surface.
Maybe the tyre difference (also 10mm wider in the Ford) also contributes to road noise, which is an area – especially after spending lots of time in a $20K-more-expensive Hyundai Genesis lately – that neither moves beyond their station to feel premium.
The G6E has far more coarse-chip road roar than the Calais, however, which offers an impressive level of insulation for the price. It’s obvious when in only one of these cars we needed to turn the radio up slightly and talk a little louder to our photographer front passenger as speeds rose.
Above: Holden Calais (top) and Ford Falcon G6E (bottom).
Still, both cars are born for eating up kilometres, and they further distance themselves from similarly priced medium sedan and compact SUV rivals in their rear accommodation.
Indeed sitting in the back seat of each contender transported this tester back to various family holidays, walkman then discman playing in the back of an ED Falcon then VT Commodore. (Yes, we crossed the red versus blue divide, with the old man choosing the Ford because at the time a VR wagon couldn’t fit a double-pram in sideways, before returning to Holden with the bigger and better looking next-gen.)
Fact is, there are plenty of kids who will enjoy the rear of today’s Commodore and Falcon on long distances much more than your typical compact SUV.
Above: Ford Falcon G6E (top) and Holden Calais (bottom).
Ultimately, the Calais has more opulent rear seating, both in terms of legroom and extra appointments such as overhead map lights, door bottle holders and a trio of adjustable headrests.
The G6E has the plusher cushion, but it is less tilted and there is less support overall on either side.
On the upside, the backrest can be folded 60:40 to aid practicality, where the Holden lingers with a centre ski port to barely improve on its 495-litre boot (535L for the Ford).
If you’re the sort of driver who puts more emphasis on the first part of the sports-luxury equation, however, the Ford is the one for you.
Its wider Dunlop Sport Maxx tyres provide more grip than the Bridgestone Turanzas of its rival, teaming ideally with a light front-end that means the G6E has an agility level that rivals a certain other breed of four-cylinder – a hot-hatch.
Climbing towards Lake Mountain in Victoria’s north-east, a successive series of left then right corners left our young photographer gobsmacked at how adept the Falcon chassis is when it has a four-cylinder up front.
The Calais feels noticeably more rolly and lazy on turn-in to a corner, and you feel more weight shifting. Yet if anything its transition between gripping up front then feeding in throttle and feeling its obvious rear-wheel-drive balance, is more fluent and classic Commodore.
The suspension also has tighter control over its body during really big hits that bounce the zingy, fleet-footed (no pun intended) Falcon.
Every time the Ford bounced a bit it reminded me of how the head of our household was around a decade ago almost convinced to switch to a BA Falcon … until he hit a speed bump on a test drive, declared it too floaty, and as much as I disagreed promptly swapped VT Commodore for a VY.
Anyway, while luxury sedans certainly don’t have to prioritise dynamics, that this pair teams a level of dynamism with a level of cushiness expected in this genre, is a tribute to their depth of engineering.
It also places both closer to a BMW 5 Series rather than rivals such as the Genesis, and the front-wheel-drive Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, Skoda Superb and Toyota Aurion.
Forget the competitiveness thing with the Germans for a moment, though, because nobody is cross-shopping this pair with cars twice the price that remain better cars full stop. It’s the above nameplates we’ll be left with in three years, few of which currently have the depth of engineering of this pair, while question marks remain whether the European Ford Mondeo and Holden Insignia that follow this duo will.
As our bug-splattered duo pulls into a country service station for a final fill, it’s the Calais that surprises by being more economical, drinking 11.4L/100km, 0.4L ahead of its foe.
But out here at the servo, another surprise is the interest shown in the new Ford, something that is repeated days later on another test with another Falcon in country New South Wales; but never in the populist cities of each state.
There’s still love for the big Ford out back, just not enough to keep it alive, and its lacklustre sales over the past few years means the FG X was clearly never given the development budget to support the talented blokes behind the scenes.
The Ford Falcon G6E loses this contest, though its impressive ride/handling balance, slick drivetrain and loaded cabin means it is still worth a look if premium levels of polish, refinement and technology aren’t central to the appeal of your affordable luxury car.
However, that the Holden Calais packages a contemporary level of furnishings and technology, with classic space and driveability, all in a package that is so affordable, means that – finally – you need no degree of parochialsm to call it truly world class.
Click the Photos tab above for more images by Tom Fraser.