“Car broken down on the King Street on ramp causing traffic build up” was what I heard as I was swearing under my breath while I climbed into the other car to rescue my poor stranded wife who had a clutch issue in the (un)trusty old EL GLi back in 2009. "That’s it, one more breakdown from that heap of junk and I’m buying a newer car. Maybe an AU XR8?" I thought. I wouldn’t say no, that’s for sure!
One week later, as the EL was once again broken in the driveway I was poring over AU XR8 ads on the internet.
“Just get a normal AU!” the wife said. “We can’t afford an XR8!”. For those who remember my review of my 2001 AU LTD, you may remember that my wife has conceded that owning far too many cars is just a part of being married to me. Back then however, we were newlyweds and while the signs were there, she was not yet ready to accept the forthcoming. I was going to drive her crazy with all my cars.
“I’ve found the one I want!!!” I called out. “Come have a look!”. She walked over to the screen stating loudly that I was not getting an XR8 and that I should just look at a standard AU instead. As she glanced onto the screen, she stopped mid-sentence, paused, and then with a voice full on intrigue asked, “how much?”.
The car was glorious. It was a Series 3 in factory paint Blueprint, easily the best colour in the AU and BA range (sorry Gunmetal Grey and Narooma Blue lovers), had the premium interior, factory 5-speed manual, Momo gear shifter and steering wheel, low kilometres and - being a Series 3 - sported the “Rebel” body kit.
This one also had a few goodies too. The bonnet had been swapped out for a fiberglass bonnet that also sported the BA-style bonnet bulge. The exhaust had been replaced with a straight through twin 2.25-inch system and it had been tuned. Plans were immediately made (with the wife’s blessing for once) for me to fly up to Sydney and get it.
What a great decision that turned out to be! This thing is incredible. I have been very lucky in my line of work as an automotive engineer (former) to drive some absolutely incredible cars. The list includes but is not limited to the FGII GT-F, FG through FG-X XR6T and XR8, FG-X Sprints (6T and 8) and VF HSV R8 to name a few, and while I would happily have any of those cars in my driveway, none could possibly displace my beloved XR8 as my favourite car of all time, even 10 years later.
What makes this car so good though? The engine is only a baby V8, weighing in at 4.9 litres (rounded to 5 in marketing materials), the transmission is only a 5-speed (4 if you got an auto) and it doesn’t have any sort of drivers aids outside ABS brakes. Even the AU Ghia’s and LTD’s got traction control but the significantly more powerful XR8’s did not, which is something I will never understand.
What makes this car so amazing? It isn’t the best car in any particular metric (except durability of course – it is an AU), but it is still extremely capable in every metric. Yes, there are cars that handle better, go faster, are better equipped, and are more spacious, but none quite strike the perfect balance that this car has. It isn’t the fastest, but it is fast. It isn’t the most spacious, but it is spacious. It isn’t the best handling, but it does handle phenomenally well. It isn’t the best looking… wait hang on, it isn’t the 90’s any more and anyone who takes off their prejudice cap can actually see that it is actually a rather stunning design.
The looks was the biggest issue this car faced when it was released, as it was ahead of its time and that it was released with a Ford badge on it. If say, hypothetically, a company like Mercedes released a car that looks almost identical to it, about 4 years later, and called it something like the CLS500, the world would gush and fawn over it as if it was the work of Da Vinci. Wait a minute...
So, this blend of attributes gives the car something that the other magnificent cars didn’t quite have to the same level as the humble AU: Character. If you want to find a metric, albeit difficult to measure, that the AU is almost unbeatable in, it is character. The best way to measure character is by asking how much you enjoyed just driving the car. How big a smile does it place on your dial? I will use the FG-X XR8 Sprint here as a suitable comparison tool. Put foot to the floor in that machine and you will be thrust into the back of your seat with such force that you will struggle to breath. You will be hurled to exceptionally illegal speeds in a matter of seconds and while this is happening, the engine is screaming at you with a not-subtle whine emanating from the valley-mounted Eaton.
The grin is from ear to ear. That is character, from the engine anyway…
The AU XR8 invokes this in everything it does. Sure, the Sprint will have finished the quarter mile and allowed time for the driver to have a short nap before you cross the finish line, but your smile won’t be any smaller. It is still plenty fast, and it is still screaming at you (sans Eaton whine), and if you ever are fortunate enough to need to turn the steering wheel, you are graced with perfectly balanced weight, responsive turn in, minimal body roll (in XR series anyway, and not in the much more boaty luxury and base models) and a car that generally feels connected to the road and well planted. It is a genuine driver’s car in every sense of the word, but also big enough so that now that I have a 6 year old and an 8 year old child, they can come along on these junkets and still have plenty of room in the cabin for us all.
So, the fuzzy feeling you get whenever you are lucky enough to steer one of these future classics translates into a strong love for the model, and an admiration that transcends the statistics and numbers. This car is more than the memes. It is a genuine notch in the belt of Australian engineering and a car that will long outlast the vitriol placed on its styling in 1998. It has truly earned its classic status, even if it took most people way too long to see that. Mine will remain wrapped in wool in the shed, only to come out on weekends, as it is a treat for the family to take “daddy’s blue car” out of the shed and for a spin. It is forming fond memories in my children’s childhood and itself fostering an interest in cars - a stark reminder that you don’t need to own an XY GT to have a car loaded with character. Every now and then, a more modern car comes along and does a brilliant job there too.
So we’ve discussed the immeasurable, but how about the measurable? The CarAdvice rating systems are justified in the following ways:
Performance and Economy:
9.5 out of 10. Those who have read my LTD review will remember that I savaged that car's economy. Many comments questioned this as they argued that the car's economy was not bad for a car of that size and style. But the reality is that this XR8 is the reason that the LTD’s economy was rated so poorly. While you can appreciate there is a weight difference between the two variants, it isn’t as large a chasm as the size of the car would have you believe. However, there is a chasm when it comes to engine performance. No prizes for guessing which way! Despite this, the fuel economy of the XR8 is actually quite admirable, coming in at 12 or so litres per 100 kilometres. It is worth noting that this is when the car is driven in 'normal' circumstances. Take it out for a bit of fun and watch it climb to around 15 litres – the same as the LTD in regular circumstances!
What about the performance itself? As established, it isn’t going to cause any much newer high-end Aussie muscle much stress, however, it is not what one could call slow. We need to spend a few words here discussing that 4.9L V8. Part way through the AU run, the ladies and gentlemen over at Holden decided to drop a Corvette motor into the Commodore. It was a big deal because the 308 previously used was a complete slug and suddenly, they had a missile. The VT and VX SS running the Gen3 V8 pushed out 220kW and 225kW respectively, a catastrophically higher number than what was in the XR8 at the time (only 185kW).
Ford needed to do something, and their first thought was to do what Holden did and look in the parts bin – only to find that the Ford parts bin was quite barren. So, Ford did something that in the age of shareholders and business cases seemed quite impossible. They took every XR8 motor, tore it down to bare metal, re-honed the cylinders, changed out a few bits and rebuilt it all by hand. They also ran a similar but more extreme program on the coveted T-Series, but that is for another article (one day, if I can ever buy one!).
The result was spectacular; 220kW to match the VT, and only 5kW short of the VX SS - out of an engine that was nearly a litre smaller. What a powerplant it was! The delivery was, to quote a friend and BA XR8 owner, “European” in its linear delivery. The engine pulls from any RPM, and I’m not exaggerating. In fifth gear at around 50km/h it is almost doing idle speeds, but if you squeeze the throttle, even slightly, it just accelerates. No knocking, no complaining, it just takes off as any normal car would in the correct gear. It is probably the one characteristic of the engine that still surprises me every time I need to use it. Under more ‘sporty’ conditions, the engine screams its head off to the rev limiter and makes the most incredible sound, more than able to stir loins, similar to any good V8.
Cabin Space and Comfort:
9.5 out of 10. The car is generally very spacious and comfortable to drive around in. It eats up the km’s on long trips and you get out of the car feeling very fresh and ready to go again. Despite its firmer, sportier ride and more aggressive engine, the car retains what makes the Falcon such a good car (RIP). It is a cruiser, a jack of all trades and above all a car for the family. It is still comfortable. The harder ride however can still be felt when on poor condition roads, or railway crossings and the rear head room could be better.
The boot is very large, as you would expect for a Falcon, so taking the car on a holiday is more than practical as the cabin space can be reserved for the human beings and any obligatory pillows, or kids’ games and all the luggage can be stored safely away in the back, de-cluttering the interior.
Technology and Connectivity:
8.5 out of 10. It was built in 2002, so the technology we take for granted now was only just emerging. The model came with an optional phone holder (not fitted to this car) and a brilliant premium sound system (optional, but also fitted to this car) that took it to the high-end Euro’s for clarity. The radio was a 6-stack in-dash CD player, which was cutting edge in the day but it still retained the tape-deck (last Falcon to have this before the BA deleted it all together). The volume and cruise controls were fitted to the steering wheel, which was a novelty back then as well. It is hard to rate a car down for technology that didn’t exist, so lack of Bluetooth connectivity or satellite navigation (available as standard on LTD’s only and Ghia models as an option only at that stage) is forgivable. It was very well catered for given the expectations of the era.
Price and Features:
8 out of 10: Lets be honest, for around 50 grand, you couldn't get a V8 muscle car that turned heads, went like stink by the standards of the day and could take the whole family on a holiday to the other side of this massive country in comfort all at once. It was also quite well equipped for its day, with driver and passenger air bags, premium instrument cluster, air conditioning, CD player as standard (6-stack optional), front electric windows standard (rears optional, as fitted in this car), a menacing body kit and one of the best steers a family sedan can be.
This particular car is also fitted with the ‘premium’ interior which means leather, as well as the Momo wheel and gear knob, rear electric windows, an electric sunroof and premium sound. The only issue is that the ‘premium’ interior still didn’t feel all that premium. The leather was stunning, but that was it. You still had the dark grey textured plastic door handles, rubber console lid and it was missing the boot lid trim that still reminded you that it was not a premium car every time you went to the boot. On this car, the first thing I did after collecting it was installing the chrome interior door handles from a Ghia and have since then installed the boot lid liner and a leather console lid. Honestly, this is how it should have come from factory.
Ride and Handling:
10 out of 10: This is one of the best parts about this car. Not a word of a lie, the handling on this thing is like nothing any large sedan has ever been. Compared to the similar-weight E Series before it, the car feels a generation more modern and sportier (as it should). But also when compared to the newer B and F series, it feels lighter and more nimble (it was a lot lighter which helps) but best of all, it doesn’t feel old. This car shares its stables with a brand new Mazda 6 Atenza and Mazda 3 Astina (post in the comments if you want these reviewed as well!) and getting out of the exceptional and very modern Mazda’s and into the old Ford doesn’t feel like the step back in time as it should. You can tell the technology isn’t there, but you can’t tell the age is there.
As mentioned, the ride is very compliant for a sporty car like this and considering what it can do around a corner, as well as riding on 19-inch wheels (they shipped with 17s from factory), the ride is more than acceptable.
This car is a future classic, already on the upwards curve in resale (which is way too soon for its age) for good reason. It is the most complete and comprehensive package Ford, or any Australian car maker has ever put together. Proving that hindsight is 20-20, the humble AU is now deservingly a loved part of Australian lore and further drives home how sad the demise of the Australian automotive industry is – because we did make some incredible cars, and even after the AU, both the red and the blue teams had their share of impressive creations. Could we have created a car more complete than the AU though? Maybe. But now we never will, and that is deserving of some sadness.