What we liked
>> Good ground clearance
>> Plenty of traction in rough terrain
>> Powerful and refined engines
Not so much
>> On tarmac ride is a bit jiggly
>> Rear cabin space access is difficult
>> Hefty price premium
Ever since Ford re-introduced a cab chassis design with the AU in 1999, it has had the upper hand over Holden and continued to deliver a very good product. Holden answered that sales domination with the One Tonner arriving in early 2003 and upped the ante with things like the double cab Crewman and its 4WD kin the Cross 8.
Now Ford is fighting back again with the launch of the Falcon RTV (Rugged Terrain Vehicle) Ute. It's not a 4WD but according to Ford, offers the ability to head a little off the beaten track without sacrificing the comfort, ride and handling of the standard ute. To achieve its off-road ability the RTV has significantly increased ride height, plenty of off-road protection and a full locking rear differential. Ford has been in this market before with the Outback, sold between 1995 and 1999, but this new RTV promises more potential applications than its predecessor.
At launch in September 2003, it carried between a $3500 and $4500 premium over the equivalent low ride ute pricing it between $30,615 and $37,635.
The most noticeable thing about the RTV is the extra ride height - both from outside and within the cabin - and this was one of the cornerstones of the engineering program. The idea was to provide a two-wheel drive alternative to the Japanese one tonners that could easily and safely get onto difficult building sites or along farm tracks without losing its underbody.
Compared to the standard Falcon XL ute, the RTV sits 67.5mm higher at the front axle and 80mm higher at the rear axle, giving it an overall ground clearance of 215mm. The extra height has also increased approach and departure angles while a 30mm wider track ensures stability of the vehicle is maintained. As it is intended to travel in harsh areas, there is plenty of protection for mechanical components, including a full length high strength fiberglass composite sump transmission guard, protective coverings for brake and fuel lines and steel sleeves for the rear shocks.
The RTV's styling was also designed to give it a fit for purpose attitude and it uses a different grille that ties it in with the Ford "truck" family and wide flared guards over the 16-inch alloy wheels.
Retaining the ride comfort of the standard Falcon ute was important to Ford and although the RTV uses the same leaf sprung rear as the One Tonne Ute, it has undergone some modifications to avoid axle tramp and the increased body roll often associated with higher ride vehicles. In terms of creature comforts, the RTV is offered in one trim specification with either a chassis cab or ute box rear.
Standard features include power windows and mirrors, remote central locking, and a radio CD player with steering wheel mounted controls. Aircon is a $2250 option as is cruise control at $595. Inside, in what Ford calls its Supercab design, there is plenty of storage space - although getting in behind the seats could be easier - and a couple of good supportive bucket seats. The rake and reach adjustable steering column and height adjustable driver's seats makes it easy to get a good comfortable driving position.
The extra ride height also makes it easy to get in and out of the RTV frequently as many potential buyers are likely to do. A front bench with column shift auto is optional but the centre space would be a squeeze for anything but a short trip.
Apart from the safety benefits off-road afforded by the extra traction of the locking differential, the RTV's solid handling and good grip mean that on-road, it doesn't suffer from the increase in the centre of gravity. In terms of safety equipment, the RTV features standard anti-lock brakes and a driver's airbag with a passenger bag available as a $495 option.
Like the rest of the Falcon ute range, the RTV is offered with a choice of three engines - a 182kW/380Nm 4.0-litre straight six, 156kW/375Nm E-gas 4.0-litre straight six and the 220kW/470Nm 5.4-litre V8. Transmission options include a five-speed manual and the four-speed Sports Shift automatic, which allows sequential manual operation for those who like to shift their own gears occasionally.
The big difference is the rear differential and it is this that provides the sometime off-road ability. Unlike the HydraTrac limited slip diff in the Outback, this time round Ford has opted for a fully locking differential that can be activated on the move via a switch on the dash. By locking the diff, you end up with essentially a solid rear axle that ensures both wheels turn at the same speed enabling the car to move forward if only one rear wheel has traction.
Under normal driving conditions the diff is unlocked but hit the switch under 40km'h and it will lock up for better traction. If you travel over 70km/h it automatically unlocks but will lock up again if the speed drops below 40km'h. The only way it disengages permanently is if you hit the switch or turn the car off.
The RTV is not a four-wheel drive and Ford is very clear that it is not targeting those who really do need it. But according to its research there was need for a vehicle where drivers needed the higher ground clearance and occasional better traction of the four wheel drive one tonners but wanted more power, comfort and refinement than the Japanese products could offer.
Holden as yet doesn't have a Commodore-based higher ride ute, so the vehicles directly in Ford's sights are the likes of Toyota HiLux, Mazda B-Series, Nissan Navara, Holden Rodeo and Mitsubishi Triton.
ON THE ROAD
Despite its higher stance, the RTV still handles admirably on the road cornering reasonably flat and holding its line, courtesy of the stiffer tuned suspension. There is a degree of payoff in the ride quality however, with the car feeling a little jiggly over rougher sealed surfaces and it does tend to pitch a bit over bigger undulations. But get it off the tarred stuff and it comes into its own.
On gravel the ride is better and the car feels very solid. At higher speeds there is good feedback through the steering and suspension and you can push on with confidence. In tighter turns at lower speeds - still on graded surfaces - the extra traction afforded by the locking diff becomes noticeable as you depress the accelerator pedal.
Our drive included some serious mud and rock-strewn tracks at the army's proving ground at Monegeeta and while you wouldn't plough on through a four-wheel quagmire, with a bit of judicious driving, the RTV handled the worst with aplomb. As Ford claims it is not a four-wheel drive, but unless you are going to cross the Simpson, you probably really don't need full four wheel drive and for the tradie/farmer or even recreational user who needs the ground clearance and occasional off-road grip, the RTV works very well. It does, as they say, what it says on the box.