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Sep 29

2003 BA Ford Falcon XR8

This is the third write-up of cars present on our “Aussie Built” drive day.

There was a time when the XR8 and it’s rival from Holden, the SS Commodore, would battle it out for dominance of Australian streets for model after model. In June of 2010, the XR8 was dropped from the lineup, thanks to it’s 5.4L engine failing to meet tightening emissions regulations.

Ford fans have been waiting for the XR8 nameplate to return and take it’s place in the contest again. Now, Ford Australia boss, Bob Graziano, says they’re struggling to make a business case for the XR8 to return. This may be the death knell for the icon.

In some ways, the XR8 has been a victim of the success of it’s Falcon-based siblings.

The XR6 Turbo, introduced with the BA range in late 2002, is a hugely acclaimed vehicle. A vehicle that matched the XR8 in standing start performance and easily beat the XR8 for flexible, usable torque down low in the rev range. It also outpointed it’s big brother in the twisty stuff just to add insult to injury.

Then, in 2009, FPV (Ford Performance Vehicles) introduced the GS model. An entry level FPV model that offered blistering performance for a price that was temptingly close to that of the XR8.

These days, with used 2003 BA model XR8s floating around the $13-18,000 mark, depending on their condition and the number of ks on the clock, they present an interesting buy for Ford V8 fans. As possibly the last V8 engined Falcons to be sold under the main Ford badge instead of the FPV one, the BA-FG model XR8s may well end up being historically significant cars.

Enough about history though, how does this thing drive?

Despite being hugely undersquare, the XR8’s mill easily hits it’s rev limiter at 5600rpm. In the lower gears, it hits the mark so quickly that the rev limiter needs to abruptly interrupt to prevent damage.

The home-brewed parts-bin V8 (whose spec is unique to Australia) manages the high revs without losing too much down low though, so it isn’t all just in the cams.

We take off and discover a medium weight, but strange clutch pedal. Strange in that this test car seems to have a double take-up point. Like a twin plater where the plates have become separated and are engaging individually. We know this not to be normal, having driven other XR8s that didn’t give this sensation.

Slam the fly-by-wire accelerator pedal to the floor and the Control-Blade rear end begins it’s battle with the torque delivery. It eventually succeeds and the car gets power down surprisingly well.

The 5.4L DOHC 32V V8 produces peak power of 260kW @ 5250rpm and peak torque of 500Nm @ 4250rpm. Which is enough to haul the 1795kG Falcon from 0 – 100kM/h in 6.12 seconds and onto the 400M mark in 14.39, while 80-120kM/h disappears in 4.1 seconds.

This is an old school V8 engine in some ways, with a lot of rich noise. By the time 2500rpm is on the tacho, we’re hearing low moaning noises. At around 3800rpm, there is a distinct tonal change to a mellow warble, matched by an acceleration change. From there on, the power delivery piles on in a linear fashion all the way to redline. Change up a cog and repeat process. That’s pretty much all there is to it. Each gear change drops the engine right back into the meaty torque zone.

The engine is smooth and flexible at almost any point on the tacho, and there’s no trace of the graininess or sharpness that are found in some other local V8s. It’ll pull well from idle speed in any gear at almost any road speed. In 5th gear, it’s pulling a minuscule 1800rpm at 100kM/h and yet, overtaking doesn’t require a shift down, the big Falcon effortlessly moving around traffic with a quick blip of the throttle.

Driving up the Chum/Toolangi spur, with it’s challenging, technical nature revealed more of this flexibility. Many of the corners taken in 2nd gear in other vehicles were dispatched easily in either 3rd or 4th in the XR8.

The spur also revealed some less pleasing aspects to this engine though. The downside of that high-riding V8 with it’s big, fat heads is the amount of weight over the front axle.

The detriments are twofold. Firstly, there is heavy understeer on corner entry. The front washes wide as you approach the apex, be it on the power or on trailing throttle. Secondly, the XR8 does not like to change directions quickly when encountering a set of bends that go one direction then the other. It’s like trying to steer with an elephant attached to your front bumper.

Because of this, you tend to approach at a lower speed and then use all the neddies on hand to power back out in post-apex oversteer. This approach will net you a reasonable point to point speed, but is a little disappointing if you like driving quickly through the entirety of a bend.

Start talking about ride, and the XR8, more than any other car on our drive day highlights the evolution of this industry. Ride-wise, it is miles better than that of XR8s and FTE cars that came before it.

Yet it doesn’t even get close to the sophisticated control and bump absorption of the FG model cars here.

Unlike the equivalent model XR6 Turbo’s T5 gearbox, or the SS Commodores’ T56s, the T3650 Tremec 5 Speed gearbox fitted to the XR8 is a pearler. It has a slightly heavy feel to it, and the throw is long, but it is smooth and the shifts are accurate. There’s a very positive, decisive feel to the arrangement and only the most savage of gear changes would ever catch out the synchros.

Our test car was fitted with big aftermarket brakes, so we won’t comment too much on the feel or performance of those. From experience of these vehicles when they were new, we can tell you the optional brake package that Ford offered was fantastic and the standard ones much less so. Something to keep in mind if you’re considering buying a used BA XR8 is that the optional stoppers can be identified by the front rotors being vented and grooved, by twin callipers as opposed to singles and by the rears also being grooved.

The BA XR8 used an average of 14.6L of Premium Unleaded Fuel per 100kM on our test.

The interior of the XR8 is a nice place to sit. It may seem a little plain looking compared to more modern vehicles, but it is well equipped and the seats offer excellent support, especially in terms of side bolstering and shoulder support.

There is a ton of space inside and the Falcon body will easily accommodate 5 burly blokes and their gear on the way to the football or on a fishing trip.

The XR8 isn’t perfect and time has moved on from it in a lot of ways. ┬áBut you can easily fit everyone in it, it can tow a boat, it sounds great, has a flexible engine, and a great shifting gearbox. If you want all of that and you love V8s, you’d be hard pressed to find something better for the money.

Provided you can put up with the handling theatrics inherent to the big lump under the bonnet and the fuel consumption that is.

Michael Adams for Infinite-Garage.
Article originally produced for www.worldcarreview.com

To check out other parts of the series on Aussie Built Cars check out:
Part 2 Holden Caprice V-V8
Part 1:FPV GT