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History dictates that (power) wars don’t end in draws. When the Ford Falcon XR8 arrived in 1992 it made an identical 165kW of power to the Holden Commodore SS and with 388Nm of torque listed a crucial 3Nm ahead.
From either side of the trenches the two 5.0-litre engines threw grenades until Holden used Yank weaponry in 1999 with the 220kW 5.7-litre Gen III. Caught short, Ford matched it as the clock ticked over to the new millenium, then deployed a 5.4-litre in 2002 that made 260kW ahead of the 235kW of its rival from the same year.
By then, however, the ageing, slow-revving Ford V8 had come under friendly fire from its own six-cylinder turbocharged teammate that even those who bleed blue had to concede was the better performance engine. It went down swinging with 290kW in 2010, but emissions regulations landed the final punch.
Meanwhile the Holden Commodore SS has since 2006 used a 6.0-litre V8 engine now producing 270kW and 530Nm as a manual in its latest VF generation, or 10kW/13Nm less with the six-speed automatic tested here.
A power war cease-fire seemed likely to take these home-grown heroes out to 2017 retirement. Yet proving that simmering tensions always explode in some way, we now have the revived Ford Falcon XR8.
Philosophically the VF Commodore and FG X Falcon could not be any more different. There’s no hiding it: from other comparison tests between these two (read Falcon versus Commodore Evoke, and Falcon G6E versus Calais) you can feel the Holden was engineered to have a stellar shot at world markets and ultimate survival, where the Ford feels like it’s wounded and limping towards the grave.
But the test between the SS and XR8, respectively painted in house colours of the Red Lion and Blue Oval, is different. Performance and handling, those power wars and lap times, are paramount – and here the Ford scores.
Nobody in a school yard or the pub is discussing how downmarket the Falcon interior is, or is smugly musing that the Commodore can automatically reverse park itself where its foe can’t.
In an absence of a proper development budget, Ford has done the right thing by enthusiasts. In closing Ford Performance Vehicles (FPV) it has taken yesterday’s FPV R-Spec that cost $76,990, and almost identically made it into today’s Falcon XR8 that asks $54,690 in automatic trim.
That means a 5.0-litre Miami supercharged V8 engine developing 335kW at 5750rpm and 570Nm between 2200-5500rpm (though FPV has said in the past it will go beyond 600Nm on fleeting overboost).
Not only do those figures drive multiple bullets into the alloy block of its naturally aspirated rival, but the Holden is hungry for revs to perform, making peak power at 5600rpm but torque not until 4400rpm.
However, the Commodore is primed to compete here in SS V Redline specification, which wears an identical pricetag to the XR8 and has several of its own chassis performance cards with which to play.
Over the regular SS and SS V it includes a Competitive Mode for its stability control system, 30mm-wider rear tyres (now 275mm) wrapped around its 19-inch alloys, FE3 ultra sports tuned suspension and Brembo brakes.
But the Falcon XR8 isn’t malnourished here, either.
When its R-Spec near-twin landed two years ago, compared with other FPV models it boasted 275mm-wide rear tyres and Sachs dampers with 45 per cent firmer rear spring rates, 1mm-thicker rear anti-roll bar and revised toe control to improve the previously difficult power down.
Front strut mounts became 60 per cent stiffer, upper control arms 40 per cent more taut, and automatic transmission mounts were found to be a full 150 per cent more rigid. It also gets four-piston Brembo front callipers like the SS V Redline.
When editor Jez Spinks gave the Falcon XR8 high initial marks at the local launch of the FG X Falcon range, we knew it was game on with the SS V Redline we’ve already come to know and love.
Although this is a big showdown, equally it is a big salute to two performance models that are clearly going out all guns blazing.
For that, we need an equally big test route that will take us over the Blue Mountains from Sydney, on classic touring roads nudging around Bathurst before heading due south to a wonderful hillclimb then back the same way.
We decide a 60km/h lap of Mount Panorama doesn’t do these cars justice, particularly since we plan to head to Goulburn to complete our own 1000km trip by lapping and performance testing the pair at Wakefield Park Raceway.
The day before we leave I collect the Commodore SS V Redline from a city dealership and head for lunch with friends in Surry Hills.
Jeez it may not matter here, but having twin electrically adjustable leather front seats (the XR8 only for the driver), a booming Bose audio with intuitive infotainment (the Falcon has the latter, but crass speaker quality) and stuff like head-up display, auto parking and blind-spot assist (none in all three cases for the Ford) makes this red Holden feel like more than just a boofy V8.
It’s difficult not to make the comparison with the myriad Volkswagen Golf R hatchbacks that zip in and out of backstreets around here. You could also conclude that the similarly priced German gets much less space, kit and technology, and doesn’t even feel particularly more premium inside.
The refinement levels inherent in the VF Commodore range are amazing, but they also silence the V8 to the point of anonymity.
Unless you’re using the newly added paddleshifters to keep the revs high, it is all a bit docile, serving its performance quietly. Then you look down and see the engine is using 18L/100km and confess the little Golf R may have the performance and economy equation a bit closer to the mark for the modern enthusiast.
The ride and steering in the Commodore SS V Redline immediately gel as perfectly judged, and on the way home in the wet it leaves you no doubt about its rear-wheel-drive ‘involvement’.
The next morning as the suburbs stream inbound to the city, we thread away from the fashion-clad hipster enclaves where these cars will never be properly understood.
The SS V Redline purrs along at the legal freeway limit, and dismisses the big climb up Bells Line of Road with such nonchalance that it would barely bother my mythical trio of beefy mates stretching out in the back on this early morning cruise (it would be to Bathurst, no doubt).
There’s no lack of transparency as to where we’re from when I join Jez in the XR8 and we refuel on the edge of the mountains.
“Really need coffee; should I risk it?” heavily Brit-accented Jez whispers with a slight sense of panic that suggests a) he already knows the answer; and b) he understands the decibel level required to communicate in order to not get bashed by surrounding tradies.
Remembering that I once copped an official warning over suggesting a McDonalds coffee before a test, the beverage of which he’d thrown out the window before leaving the drive-thru, I calmly suggest a stop elsewhere and swap into the XR8.
Although you only have to flick over the ignition key once then let the electronics do their thing, the multiple cranks needed to fire the 5.0-litre to life signal its intent, as does the throbby idle.
Each time you come out of the Holden – or any car with a proper driving position – you find yourself reaching for the steering adjustment in the Ford and pushing the wheel higher, only to find that it won’t. Maybe the fact the heavily bolstered and quite plush leather sports seat won’t go lower is to deliberately leave you in a begging-dog position so you can perch over the enormous bonnet bulge.
Also compared with the Commodore, the throttle response is super immediate, making the Falcon feel like the dog, straining on its leash and waiting impatiently to attack.
You are yanked along for the ride, too, because the suspension in the Falcon XR8 feels so much stiffer than that in the SS V Redline. It constantly bucks and bobs along, never settling, and sometimes steering shivers add to the feeling that the fastest Ford could be one of two things depending on your perspective: oafish or purposeful. Its dynamic behaviour will sort our answer later.
As traffic thins, speed limits rise and straights appear, it would be rude not to exploit the acceleration ability that has long been at the core of every muscle sedan.
Accompanied by a dominant supercharger shriek, the Falcon XR8 shifts the tachometer needle in the mid-range like no model within cooee of this price. The way the six-speed automatic cleverly holds gears when it detects you’re having a go shows there’s more to this drivetrain than just madness in a straight line.
That said, you do find yourself playing a game with the fast Falcon: how much pressure can you put on the throttle without strobing the traction control light?
Foot flat from a standstill and the yellow stability control light will still be disco-ing by third gear, though again to the credit of Ford engineers its application is of the seamless variety. Delicately feather the pedal mid-corner and you’ll only be millimetres in before it fires; overtaking a truck by squeezing it slowly allows you maybe a centimetre extra grace.
Sorry, though, delicate and XR8 owner are as incompatible as Blundstones and the Golf R; expect the ESC-off button to be well worn by the time XR8s get to the used market.
Just before the descent onto the western plains we spot a country cottage perched high on a cliff top that signals caffeine inside. From appearances a desperate Jez gives it his tick of approval.
As we go inside, a beefy bloke with a black hoodie welcomes us without a smile.
“Oi, so who’s driving the Ford?” he enquires, before Jez almost cuts him off with “that would be Daniel” and bee-lines to the female behind the La Marzocco.
“Do us a favour?” he deadpans. “And just drive it off the edge there.”
While the machine froths up a couple of lattes, no-relation-to-ours Crawf (I know his name because he tells me ‘It’s a Crawford thing’ was custom made on his jumper) dryly admits that, “Nah, both cars are pretty good these days”.
He leans in closer and quietly confesses he owned a Falcon once, a tuned EF. “ONCE,” he reiterates, closer again.
“It’s okay, mate, batting for the other team is perfectly cool,” I replied, if only in my head.
We high-tail towards some favourite country roads. Coarse-chip, undulating, bumpy sweepers are where Australian touring cars thrive, and back in the Commodore SS V Redline it makes that point emphatically clear.
The meaty steering crispness, the absolute control it maintains, the way it rounds off bigger bumps is better than the new BMW M3 I was last here with.
In fact the hunkered-down Holden chassis, the way the body feels to sit well inside the wheels to feel poised and disciplined, is utterly fan-bloody-tastic.
When the front end digs into its last reserves of grip, you’ll feel the Commodore shift subtly onto its outside rear wheel, asking for more pressure to be applied – every facet in harmony.
That can be a downside on a hill climb, though, especially for entertaining bystanders and the camera. On some corners the SS V Redline bogs down between first and second gear, and even walloping the throttle fails to produce a decent slide in the dry.
The Falcon XR8 could not be more of a polar opposite.
Even more so than a Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG recently driven, this supercharged V8 Ford is a drift machine. Touchy throttle, immediate delivery, much more torque and super tight suspension (with a limited-slip differential like its rival) makes for a riotous combination.
Beyond the hoonery, the Ford admittedly frays at the edges.
The hard suspension makes it feel wooden and one-dimensional in sweepers, pressuring its tyres more than the Holden that relies on inherent chassis balance. In tighter stuff the Falcon XR8 feels nose-heavy, where even a Falcon EcoBoost has better overall chassis agility and balance.
The Commodore SS V Redline, meanwhile, tucks its schnoz in quickly.
That feeling was reinforced on the racetrack, where the Ford expectedly took straight-line honours but fell behind on lap time despite so much extra power.
The standstill to 100km/h sprint takes 6.4 seconds for team red, versus 5.4sec for blue. However a lap of Wakefield Park took one minute, 11.2 seconds in the Holden, three-tenths faster than its rival.
Race driver John Boston commented that “they are two extremely different vehicles to drive out on the track”, noting that the Commodore has “superb turn-in grip, and more mid-corner grip”.
We U-turn back for a very late lunch for us, and much-needed fuel for the V8s, at the small town of Oberon where Cold Chisel produced the music clip of the brilliant ode to country Australia, Flame Trees.
Hard driving means heavy drinking, and the Falcon XR8 has used 20L/100km compared with 18.6L/100km for the Commodore SS V Redline.
At the Shell on the main street, another old mate pulls up in a beautifully kept BF Fairmont Ghia and wants to look at the new Ford … and the Ford only.
“I’ve owned Fairmont Ghias since 1979,” he tells. “Just keep upgrading, love ’em, the six-cylinder has so much torque, more than the Holdens … just 80 to about 140km/h overtaking … that’s what you need out here.”
Barnesy did warble, as he walked down the main street here for that film clip, that, “There’s no change, there’s no pace, everything within its place”. For the country folk out here, what they will move to when Falcon and Commodore go is anyone’s guess.
But the vodka-swilling rock legend also pondered in this same street, “Who needs that sentimental bullshit anyway?”. With that in mind we down a couple of meat pies on main street (Jez decided on some scones), declared the Commodore’s low-lip spoiler a better table than the sloping high-backed unit in the Falcon, and headed home.
The traditional red versus blue, Holden versus Ford match up could not have played out any more differently than in its final match.
The Falcon XR8 offers a ballistic level of performance, and frankly the sort of giggle-worthy and exploitable oversteer antics that separate this breed from any other at the price.
It is completely one-dimensional, but in some instances all the better for it, though it lacks the finesse not just in refinement and ride matters, but also levels of handling.
The Commodore SS V Redline is slower, but faster in anything but a straight line.
It is less brash yet still maintains a naughty streak. It is superbly comfortable everywhere, is packed with technology, and has a depth of driver entertainment that takes it to cars on continents beyond ours.
It’s just a shame we can’t share it around in the same way that Holden won’t share the 6.2-litre V8 in our market that is fitted to the virtually identical Chevrolet SS that is sent Stateside. Yet. We told you there are no stalemates in power wars, and there’s three years left to elevate the Commodore SS V Redline to a perfect 10.
Click the above Photos tab for more images by Easton Chang.