Ford Falcon XT V8 v Holden Commodore SV8

photos - Helmut Mueller
words - Mike McCarthy
Your wallet doesn't need grunt to buy V8 power. But is it Falcon or Commodore that flashes the best-value vee for victory?

Bargain basement

Wheels Magazine
June, 2003

If you've checked the data panels already, it may seem that the Commodore SV8 has this contest shot to pieces. Well, don't be so sure. If ever there have been two local hotshots where the vital statistics don't tell the whole story, it's this pair.

On paper, anyone can see Holden's least costly V8 model is streets ahead of Ford's entry-level V8. The SV8 packs more engine capacity, more power, more torque, an extra (manual) gear, thriftier fuel economy, and a fuller features list. Caught embarrassingly short in the grunt and gears departments, the Falcon replies with more sophisticated suspension, preferable ride and handling, superior steering, and better brakes among other things that help avoid a Holden whitewash.

But, for Ford fans, the sad, bad news is that whenever the hammer goes down, the comparatively genteel XT V8 gets its nose dunked in the poop by the bully-boy SV8.The XT V8 simply lacks the muscle and mumbo to get on the pace when the SV8 turns aggro.

The performance tests were conducted two-up and in both directions, on a flat track, in stifling heat. Traction control disabled, the SV8 reels run after run with remarkably consistent results, hitting 0-100 kays in mid sixes and cutting the quarter in high 14s, with the big V8 haulin' and howlin' as though out for blood. Henry's. Then, rubbing salt, the Commodore plucks the Falcon unmercifully in the rolling-response clinches, too.

In a straight fight, the XT has no answer to Holden's humbling speed, and the 5.4 Ford's acceleration is soundly beaten each and every time. It shouldn't come as a surprise, since the base V8 Falcon's wings are clipped long before pedal hits metal. Don't get excited by the fact that the 5.4-litre 220kW Ford isn't far behind the 5.7-litre 235kW Holden for maximum power, and actually claims 470Nm max torque against the General's 465Nm. Remember, the Holden still makes a bit more power per litre, and has a little more litreage to call upon. The Commodore's cause is furthered by a measurably better power-to-weight ratio, thanks to its kerb figure being 123kg in credit against the Falcon's.

That's not the end of this one-sided argument. In concert with slightly short gearing in first and second, the Ford V8 is shamefully short of revs. There's no tacho redline, probably because it would be a wantonly early blush, considering that the cut-out cuts in at just 5250rpm, or even slightly earlier in first gear. Or is that seemingly premature ejaculation just needle lag?

Immediately giving ground to its rival in hard starts, the combined effect of the Falcon's stunted gearing and brief rev range is to require a second, time-consuming gearshift in the rush to 100km/h, which the Commodore completes with just one upchange. Every time the Ford's wound up to the verge of interruptus, the Holden still has more than a grand to go. This two-edged handicap inhibits your alacrity, not only when stropping through the gears on the straights. The brevity of the XT's gearing and rev range is even more noticeable when using 2-3-2 while diving from corner to corner on tightly snaking roads; the kind of brake-and-boot-and-countersteer twisties through which the SV8 absolutely revels.

The only consolation is that while the Ford's gearshift is no MX-5 or S2000 beater, it has noticeably more decisive travels than the Holden when hurried – particularly during downchanges. The Holden's lever feels a bit puddly and, in the test car at least, has a persistently grating frizzle.

Every fuel fill is a reminder that the Gen III engine supports powerhouse performance with impressive fuel economy. In 1000km of varied driving, the Commodore averages a relatively modest 12.7L/100km after slurping a not unreasonable 14.9L/100km during the performance-test stint, and stretching the fuel out to a thrifty 9.8L/100km during the steady-cruising phase. Off the record (without the Falcon in convoy), several hours of lazing along the Hume Highway at a boringly respectful 110km/h sees the SV8's trip computer sink to just 8.2L/100km.

It's in demanding driving conditions that the XT's consumption comes closest to the SV8's. Using throttle and gears to the max, for performance testing and rapid transit over sinuous alpine byways, the XT V8 averages 15.5L/100km, barely a half litre more than its rival. But the difference is about twice that much on overall average, largely because while the Ford cruises quite temperately (consuming less than 10.6L/100km in this instance), its fifth gear isn't as lopingly long as Holden's sixth.

The SV8's top slot amply illustrates the Gen III's great tractability. On the flat, the big bugger's happy to trickle along and pull smoothly from just 60 kays or so in top gear, meaning less than a thousand revs. You can almost count the cylinders firing. Yet although the light and uneven beat sounds purposefully strong, Holden's odd firing order lacks the traditional evocative V8 rumble that the Ford plays with subtly stirring effect. From outside, the SV8's dual pipes have a slightly louder tone. The XT talks the talk, too, albeit more discreetly through a single hidden outlet.

The SV8 clearly wins the performance and consumption skirmishes. But unless you're strictly a point-and-squirt kinda guy, those aspects alone aren't enough to win a war. Question is, although the XT's eating dust at this juncture, has it enough lead in its pencil to re-write the bottom line?

Well, it's certainly in with a good chance of turning the tables if you rate chassis dynamics, cabin presentation, accommodation, and overall refinement as worthwhile objectives.

By almost every measure, the Falcon steers, stops, rides, and handles somewhat better than the Commodore. Take steering, for example. Both have the same brisk 2.8 turns lock to lock and near enough the same 11-metre turning circle. But with perceptibly different feel and response. Regardless of how cambered and/or irregularly surfaced the straights may be, the Falcon couldn't track truer if guided by laser. Bowling ahead, its course rarely wavers, even where the also-directionally-stable Commodore sometimes moves just a little. The Ford also has the slightly more responsive and finely tactile feel at the wheel, with no lost motion either side of centre. The Holden is almost as good in that respect, but has a sliver of indecision through its central segment.

Their steering is most noticeably different in the wheels' weighting. The Ford's is light enough to be too airy for some tastes, especially on first acquaintance, when it's easily turned a bit more than intended and feels a touch imprecise, whereas it is in fact highly accurate. On the other hand, Holden's helm always has firm feel at speed, slightly less wieldy to some tastes, becoming conspicuously meaty for parking. One steers with wrists, the other with forearms.

Put through the wringer, the brakes are about equally effective for mighty slowing and fade resistance. But the Falcon gives more pedal feel and has the surety of electronic brakeforce distribution to help sooth pucker-inducing late arrivals at corners and such. And if you want to press the point, Ford offers optional high-performance stoppers, unlike Holden.

Ride and handling? The makers' respective approaches couldn't be more different. Both get 'sports' suspension as standard. Terminology, however, is all they share. Holden's FE2 solution takes the traditional route with stiffened springs, beefier damping, and heavier anti-roll bars.

Heaved into corners, the SV8 follows its nose and adopts responsive attitudes while settling flat as an ironing board. Even when working its front tyres hard, SV8's cornering line and balance are readily adjustable with the wheel and/or throttle. Given smooth roads, the SV8 is a hoot through the bendy bits, where it can carry all the speed you'll ever need. Its handling, however, gets edgy and decidedly busy when the confrontational suspension is distracted by mid-corner bumps or ripples.

The XT V8's comparatively supple suspension is far more tolerant towards bumps and such. This relative softness promotes a degree more body roll when hard pressed, but smothers mid-corner nasties without affecting the XT's superior cornering poise and pleasure. Despite the weight penalty, the Falcon always feels lighter on its feet, quicker to answer the wheel, and bows more responsively to changes of direction.

The XT is in a higher league for ride quality, too, because it has some. To say it has a velvety ride may strain the Trade Practices Act, but its suspension certainly combines generous absorbency with pragmatic discipline. In stark contrast, the SV8 is a buckboard that lets every wilful bump and jarring bounce assail the cabin. On ordinary to average roads, its rugged-and-rude suspension tune is too macho for comfort.

Although the cabins' presentation and specification mightn't be as exciting as the driving, they're not without individual influence and appeal. In both instances the driver's bucket has electric cushion height/tilt allied with the usual manual adjustments, including lumbar support. Each is well shaped and deeply padded for inviting comfort, but the Holden's side bolsters are a shade more crushable and less retentive in hard cornering.

Pleasing to eye and touch, both steering wheels are two-way adjustable, have just-right compact diameter, and their rims are a nice handful, as the bishop said. The optional cruise controls' buttons are placed within easy reach on the wheel's central boss in the Falcon, whereas actuating the Commodore's column-mounted rotary stalk means taking your hand from the wheel.

The instruments read well, although the digital displays (including basic trip computer) may need a long or second look when you're wearing sunnies. The SV8 gets an exclusive red background, but its flat face is plain-Jane boring next to Ford's stylishly contoured cluster. Although each centre stack works for us aesthetically, Ford's HVAC controls have sweeter feel than Holden's, and who can resist 14 fan speeds (XT) versus pauper's four.

While the Falcon's rear seat is a bit more comfortable and supportive than the Commodore's, that edge is eroded by the lack of door grips and overhead handles. No centre armrest in the XT, either, but at least the split backrest folds. Holden's large central thru-port is accessed via a hard-faced fold-down tray, with drink holders included. Practical maybe, but an amiable armrest it ain't.

Don't ignore the boots. Holden's opens wide, and the floor is flat. However, the lid has intrusive C-hinges and the cavern lacks real height. The Falcon's lid comes agape on external hinges that have never seen inside the boot, much less crushed luggage. While the Falcon's floor looks odd, its sunken centre accepts taller cargo than what's-its-name, and also helps prevent unlashed items sliding about.

So there you go. Red-blooded performance and impressive fuel economy are the driving strengths behind the SV8's engine-oriented appeal. With the XT V8 you're looking at a slower, thirstier answer, with better-developed chassis dynamics and greater sense of refinement throughout.

Raunch or refinement? Consummate cruiser or wannabe street-racer? It's either an insanely close call, or no contest at all, depending on what fires your plug. The only straight advice is that if you're after a 'bent' bargain, take the XT V8. Or the SV8. Either way, you win; more or less.

Click here to read more on the Falcon v Commodore battle.




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Published : Sunday, 1 June 2003
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