The Falcon ute has been a rare chart-topping success for Ford in recent times, consistently out-selling its Commodore rival. One of the main reasons for the popularity of the Blue Oval's workhorse is its wide-ranging appeal. At one end of the price scale is the rugged cab chassis which combines Ford's spacious supercab two-door design with class-leading 1280kg cargo-hauling capacity.
At the other end is the high-performance XR variants. Ford introduced its XR ute in 1993, and subsequent models have helped ignite the increasingly popular sport ute segment. Now, with the new BA Falcon range of utes on sale, including a red-hot XR6 Turbo model, Ford is taking its XR range to new hard-edged heights.
With its eye-catching looks and truckloads of grunt, the Turbo ute deserves to sit atop Ford's sporty ute line-up - at least until the new XR8 arrives early in 2003. It is limited to carrying 590kg in its tray, but the turbo option has moved XR's focus even further from weekday workhorse to week-end warrior.
We drove a blue Falcon XR6 Turbo during October's Bathurst V8 SuperCar weekend, and if the keen response to the vehicle's muscular, low-slung looks is any guide, the XR's new styling is spot on.
Building on the BA Falcon makeover, the XR6 exterior gains twin headlights, a black grille, foglights, and a sharp bodykit. Adding to the aggressive profile, at least on our ute, was a bonnet bulge, hardtop tonneau (optional extra) and big 17-inch alloy wheels. With its separate cab design the Falcon ute doesn't look as slick as the Commodore VY ute, but in XR6 guise leaves no doubt about its sports car pretensions.
The re-styled cabin also gets the thumbs-up from Ford's faithful. New, well-padded seats, sporty fabric trim and a stylish dash gives the interior an upmarket feel - for a workhorse. Steering wheel-mounted buttons for audio and cruise control, and a new centre console design incorporating air-conditioning, audio, and LCD screen, amongst other changes, has improved ergonomics. The Euro-style, blue-glowing XR instruments also add to the ambience, but can be difficult to read.
Falcon's supercab design, creates an airy, spacious feel inside the cabin with plenty of head and legroom. There's also ample storage space behind the seats, plus the option of plastic storage compartments to store loose items.
Sharp styling and interior comforts aside, the focus of the XR6 Turbo ute remains under the bonnet. Compared to the standard 4.0-litre in-line six, the turbo version offers considerably more grunt and on-road performance. Power is up to 240kiloWatts, and where the low-boost turbo engine impresses the most is in the amount of torque available just off idle; a stump-pulling 450Nm at 2000rpm.
Off the line and all the way to the 6000rpm redline it responds swiftly with little fuss or noise; just a steady whine of the turbo, a subtle six-cylinder growl and a long line of traffic left behind at the lights. The Sequential Sports Shift automatic transmission works equally well in auto or manual mode, ensuring good throttle response while on the move, and safe overtaking when required. Combined with sharp steering, and powerful brakes, it's an impressive performance package.
The leaf-sprung, live-axle rear suspension is the only Achilles Heel in the XR package, if you had to name one, although Ford has made improvements for the BA model. It's still not hard to get the tail unstuck, particularly when unladen and traveling quickly over mid-corner rough patches.
That said the XR's sports underpinnings, which includes stiffer front and rear springs, sports shock absorbers and grippy low-profile tyres, provide safe, sure-footed handling under most circumstances.
At its base price of $39,990 (at launch) the XR6 Turbo is reasonably well-appointed and compares well on paper with Holden's V8-powered VY SS ute, which offers similar performance and a starting price of $39,340. Adding desirable options like a hard tonneau cover ($1695), auto transmission ($920), cruise control ($460), leather seats ($1015), ABS ($930) and passenger airbag ($495), bumps the XR6's price up quickly into mid-$40,000 territory, however.
Another concern was with the ute's overall fit and finish, with some minor niggles relating to a plastic fitting and tonneau locks spoiling an otherwise enjoyable experience.
Ford fans looking for an impressively-built, sporty load carrier are likely to overlook any of the XR6 ute's shortcomings. Focus on the sharp styling, comfortable interior and cargo-carrying thrills, and the XR6 ute shouldn't disappoint.