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Car reviews - Ford - Falcon Ute - XR6 utility

Our Opinion

We like
Spacious, cleverly designed tray, large cab, strong performance
Room for improvement
Light rear end and leaf-spring axle require careful handling on wet roads

21 Feb 2001

For Spacious, cleverly designed tray, large cab, strong performance Against Light rear end and leaf-spring axle require careful handling on wet roads By TIM BRITTEN Aug 16, 1999 HAVING soldiered on for 20 years with the previous Ford ute - spiced up with a few upgrades along the way - Ford dealers must be delighted with the new generation AU Falcon utility.

Since the previous series could be carbon-dated back to the XD series utes that first appeared in 1979, it is no surprise the Ford looked and felt a little dated compared to its Holden opposition.

Not that it fared all that badly for the company. Despite its age, it held up well against the more modern Commodore ute and, in its final guise, dispensed with many of the rough edges that characterised earlier models.

But towards the end of its long life sales were on the decline with less than 6800 units sold in 1998 - well below the 10,000 units the company expects to achieve in the next 12 months with the new AU version.

Ford has certainly made good use of the time taken to produce the all-new ute.

It comes in three basic versions - Styleside (which means regular ute in normal English), cab chassis (or what Ford calls Chassis Cab) and drop-side tray.

For load-carrying purposes, Ford has stuck with the basic leaf- spring rear suspension with outboard shock absorbers as used in the station wagon. The ute's front and rear are divided into separate sections which allows the vehicle to operate as a regular ute or as a drop-side tray - or, starting with a basic cab-chassis, to form the basis of any number of van-style or similar variants.

The wheelbase is the same as the station wagon Falcon models, which has allowed Ford to provide a large cabin with room behind the seats for two large, lidded - and optional - storage areas.

The wheelbase has also helped in the provision of a long tray area and the use of a basic leaf-spring rear suspension has contributed to the one-tonne load potential earnestly desired by most ute buyers.

The base ute's load capacity is 820kg but can be optionally lifted to 1120kg.

The cab chassis version has a payload of 1265kg.

While they were working on the rear end, Ford's designers also addressed the fuel capacity issue and strapped a plastic 82-litre fuel tank ahead of the rear axle - the safest place for a fuel tank to be - to replace the previous 68-litre unit.

Ford obviously looked closely at what people appreciate in a ute because the AU is full of handy little user-friendly features. It is a clever design.

The tray area in the Styleside is protected by a removable polyethylene "bed liner", avoiding the usual problem of scratches and dents, and the liner on the drop-down tailgate has moulded-in cup or thermos holders. The tailgate also has the facility to swing down completely to facilitate loading.

Ford says the ute can take standard pallets and building sheets because the distance between the wheel arches has been increased by 45mm while the length of the box area has also been increased by 145mm.

Another handy feature is the ability to divide the tray area into three compartments for length and two levels in height.

In XR6 form as tested here, the Falcon ute is a masterful piece of Australian design. The styling works better than it does in the Falcon sedans and the optional sports bar, more cosmetic than functional, provides a rakish look that makes it stand out on the streets.

Unlike the regular Falcon utes that get their own honeycomb-style grille, the XR models are identical to sedan versions at the front end.

From a driver's perspective, the XR6 ute is the next best thing to a sports car.

The suspension is tied down tight and the driver sits low in a body-form bucket that looks good for a few fatigue-free hours at the wheel.

The leather Momo steering wheel - with standard airbag -directs the front wheels via a responsive steering system that is perhaps a little too boosted to give a good road feel.

Like the Falcon sedans, the higher performance XR6 engine produces a decent 164kW - what we once expected from a 5.0-litre V8 not so long ago - with a solid 366Nm of torque making light work of load-carrying situations.

Driving through the standard five-speed manual gearbox, this means there is plenty of responsive grunt, from idle through to around 5000rpm. The red line says 5600rpm but the engine does not ask to be wound out that far.

So getting quickly off the line in an XR6 ute can be a spectacular business, easily accompanied by spinning wheels if no significant load is being carried.

As in all utes, the rear end must be watched carefully when there is any temptation to stomp the accelerator pedal and wet roads must be treated with due respect. That said, despite the seeming simplicity of the Ford's rear-axle design, the ute is pretty well tied down for a vehicle of this genre and usually feels more stable than its Holden equivalent.

Looking underneath, it is maybe something of a surprise - given the fact it has received the Tickford suspension once-over - that there is absolutely nothing fancy in terms of axle-control. No track rods, no Watts linkages, just two ordinary leaf springs with a couple of shock absorbers.

Much of the secret appears to be in the adoption of the long wagon wheelbase and careful tuning of shock and dual-rate leaf springs.

The result is that the ride, while relatively stiff by sedan standards, is not too harsh and not subject to uncomfortable "bucking" fore-aft movements on rough roads. This is especially notable considering the XR6 uses bigger, alloy wheels with lower- profile tyres than the regular Falcon utes.

Despite the over-assisted steering, the XR6 ute responds cleanly and accurately to driver input, making the business of tackling a challenging stretch of road reasonably rewarding. The driver just needs to be aware of the lack of traction-inducing weight at the rear.

Inside, the ute is essentially straight Falcon Forte with a few XR features such as the leather steering wheel and more heavily sculpted seats thrown in.

There is more headroom and soundproofing than the outgoing ute and the compartments behind the seats - with removable dividers - are relatively spacious.

The latching method, a copy of that used for the rear tonneau cover, seems a little unfriendly to the user but works okay after familiarisation. But the passenger seat back could do with a quick-release - like the driver's - to improve access.

One beef concerns rear vision. The heavy B-pillar area makes it difficult to take a peek over the shoulder when backing - something that needs to be done with care because the vehicle is so long. The problem is exacerbated if the optional sports bar is fitted because it is so thick it restricts vision even more.

But overall the ute is an impressive vehicle. No doubt the increased tray area and the load carrying capacity - with the optional one-tonne-plus ability - is going to make the Ford a hot choice in the ute market and will sway more than a few buyers away from Holden's offering. And hopefully get commercial vehicle users to focus more of their attention on Australian, sedan-based utes.

The cab chassis configuration will broaden Ford's penetration of the commercial market. The company obviously has eyes on police and ambulance contracts, something that was a handy sideline until fairly recently.

So the game of automotive leapfrog continues with Ford now one jump ahead of Holden. How good is the next iteration of the Commodore ute - which is expected next year - going to be?

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