Ute showdown: Ford versus Holden

words & photos - Joshua Dowling
Falcon's XR performance twins take on Commodore's SV6 and SS-V utes... Get set for sparks to fly...

Ute comparison: Holden versus Ford

OVERVIEW
The ute racing series isn't the only place where you can see argy-bargy between Australia's favourite sports utes. It's happening on showrooms floors across Australia every day. Holden has been selling sports versions of its VE Commodore ute hand over fist and with the arrival of the FG range Ford finally has something to fight back with.

With the latest Falcon, Ford has created the most powerful utes to ever wear the XR6 Turbo and XR8 badges. And the boys at the blue oval brand have spruced up the interior and exterior of the XR models to give them more street cred.

In the meantime, Holden has made some discreet running changes to its utes. With all of the above in mind, we thought we'd gather all four contenders in the sports ute market to see how they compare.

Holden SV6

What we liked
>> Smooth V6 and slick six-speed manual
>> Brilliant road holding and balance
>> Looks like an SS

Not so much
>> The sporty V6 has less grunt than the basic Ford
>> Small side mirrors, no side airbags
>> Can't get the upmarket audio/air-con controls from the SS-V

Overall rating: 3.5/5.0
Engine/Drivetrain: 3.0/5.0
Price and Packaging: 3.5/5.0
Safety: 3.5/5.0
Behind the wheel: 4.0/5.0
X-factor: 4.0/5.0

About our ratings

In some ways it's not fair to bring the SV6 along to this fight. In this company it's underpowered but at least it undercuts the price of its rivals by a few thousand dollars.

We thought we'd bring it along in any case because it gave us a chance to sample one of Holden's newer colours (we call it dark metallic grey, Holden calls it Karma) and, after all, it is the high output V6, even if it doesn't have a turbo.

The SV6 ute is turning out to be a popular choice among buyers who want the looks of the SS but can't quite manage the fuel bill of the big V8. For many people, the V6 is all that's needed and it's delivered in a smart looking package -- the same sports body kit and 18-inch wheels as the regular SS, and twin chrome exhaust tips complete the look (the V8 gets quad pipes).

The SV6 has an edge over its SS stablemate in other regards.

Because the V6 is a little lighter over the front end, it feels better balanced in corners. And the six-speed manual shifter is an absolute sweety. (The V6 gets a Japanese six-speed manual whereas the V8 gets a GM six-speed manual).

The SV6 is quiet and relatively refined to drive, and the engine sounds good when it's revved, but the exhaust is still too quiet and lacks character (something Ford's exhaust boffins have finessed well with their six-cylinder vehicles).

The SV6 stopped the clocks in our 0-100kmh test in 7.5 seconds, which is leisurely in this company, but it's also worth noting that it's among the most frugal on fuel.

Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed the rear mud flaps are missing from the SV6 (and SS-V). That's because Holden deleted them from March production onwards following a change to Australian Design Rules earlier in the year.

You can still get them, but they're a dealer-fit option.

Holden used the opportunity of the March production revisions to splash a bit of silver in the cabin. The horizontal key line across the dash is now silver rather than dark grey and there are silver spokes on the steering wheel.

The quality of Holden utes has improved since we tested some earlier examples, and the cabin plastics seem to fit better than before. That said there is still an errant leak somewhere near the edge of the bonnet that drips fluid onto the engine, leaving an unsightly stain on the alloy.

Otherwise, the SV6 remains one of the unsung heroes of the Commodore ute line-up.

Holden SS-V

What we liked
>> Awesome grunt
>> Great handling (for a ute)
>> Upmarket interior

Not so much
>> Woeful sound system (a $20,000 Hyundai is better)
>> No rear camera
>> Needs bigger brakes

Overall rating: 4.0/5.0
Engine/Drivetrain: 4.0/5.0
Price and Packaging: 3.5/5.0
Safety: 3.5/5.0
Behind the wheel: 4.0/5.0
X-factor: 4.5/5.0

Just a few thousand dollars more than the SV6 will drop you into an SS ute, with a starting price of $39,990 for the manual and another $2000 for the auto. Although, these are largely irrelevant as you can pick one up for $33,490 drive-away at the moment...

But we've tested the SS-V model with the works. The $44,990 version comes with 19-inch wheels, leather seats, sports steering wheel, dual-zone air-conditioning, SS logos on the instrument cluster and projector beam headlights. Auto adds another $2000, which brings the price of the model we've tested to $46,990. Ouch!

Not surprisingly, most punters are going for the regular SS ute, but the SS-V appeals to those who can afford a burger with the lot. The SS-V we've tested is also a post-March 2008 build, so it too misses out on the rear mud flaps, even though Holden still had them on vehicles depicted in its recent TV and magazine ads (even the website!).

There are some other changes, too. As with the SV6, there is silver horizontal plastic trim across the dash and silver spokes on the steering wheel. Sadly, the gorgeous alloy door handles that were on the original SS models have been replaced by plastic door handles that have been painted silver to look like alloy.

Holden says it ditched the alloy door handles because they were too hot to touch in the Middle East heat, and Holden wanted to reduce some of the complexity from its production line by fitting the same door handles to local models and export versions. We reckon that's a load of bollocks and it was done as a cost-cutting measure.

Fortunately, there is plenty of other good stuff to take our mind off the door handles. Like the 6.0-litre V8 under the bonnet.

Despite running changes, power is the same as before but Holden has done some calibration work that trims fuel consumption slightly. It's still thirsty if you hit the loud pedal but it can be driven frugally on the open road.

Our SS-V was still relatively new and so it didn't feel as brisk as others we've tested. Our it stopped the clock in our satellite-timed 0-100kmh test in 6.1 seconds. The engine had a bit of an asthma attack between 5000rpm and 6000rpm and we suspected that the fact it had only done 2500km didn't help.

By coincidence, we had access at the same time to an early-build SS-V with six-speed automatic transmission that had done more than 9000km. On the same piece of road on the same day, it stopped the clocks at 6.0 seconds. The timing difference wasn't much, but it felt more toey overall.

The more we drive the SS-V the more we love it. Grip from the 19-inch tyres is awesome, it sounds great and it doesn't even feel like a ute to drive. It looks the business, too, with clean sharp lines.

Our test car was equipped with one of Holden's new hard lids, which has a lower profile for better rear visibility, and a soft-touch button to open it, tucked under the duck tail next to the lock and out of plain view.

The producers of the original hard lid could not keep up with demand, so Holden designed a second hard lid and appointed another supplier. Ute customers now have the choice of two genuine Holden hard lids. For what it's worth, we prefer the newer one, as it also has LED lighting for the tray -- something even the latest Maloo hard lid lacks.

The cabin lighting at night is superb, too, and Holden has thoughtfully put courtesy lights in the load space of the cabin. (In the Ford, you get an extra roof light but it's blocked by your head when you lean over the grab something).

Previous comments regarding obscured forward visibility thanks to the thick windscreen pillars (as noted in our comparison of base-model XT and Omega utes)also apply to the SS-V. And previously we've criticised the brake pedal feel of Holden utes. The latest models we've tested feel fresher but still don't have the same bite as the Fords' brakes.

The Holden comes standard with stability control, and in the SS-V it's well calibrated. It doesn't interfere too much, but when it does, you're glad it's there.

Falcon XR8

What we liked
>> Sounds awesome
>> Side airbags available
>> Looks tough

Not so much
>> All bark, no bite. Not as fast as it sounds.
>> Never before has so much power used so much fuel and produced so little (real) grunt
>> Leaf spring rear end. Are they kidding?

Overall rating: 3.0/5.0
Engine/Drivetrain: 3.0/5.0
Price and Packaging: 3.5/5.0
Safety: 4.0/5.0
Behind the wheel: 2.5/5.0
X-factor: 4.0/5.0

The Falcon XR8 ute starts at $38,490 -- the same as the XR6 Turbo ute, and undercutting the SS ute by at least $1500. There is, however, a catch. Despite their flash looks, the XR8 and XR6 Turbo utes actually start life as bare bones propositions.

For starters, they come with 17-inch wheels as standard, not even the 18s of their sedan equivalents (or the Holden rivals) boast.

Spotting a way to cash-in or, in car-company-speak, give customers the choice, Ford has come up with a range of packs. We suspect they're proving quite popular.

Our XR8 was equipped with a luxury pack which for $4000 includes 19-inch wheels and tyres, dual-zone air-conditioning, six-disc premium sound, and leather trim sports seats.

By the time you add the $2200 hard lid, $1000 for automatic transmission, $450 for Bluetooth and iPod connector, and $400 for the premium Breeze paint, the price of our XR8 is closer to that of an SS-V.

At the heart of the matter is the 5.4-litre V8 from the previous GT Falcon. With 290kW and 520Nm of torque, it's a beast of an engine and absolutely roars, with a better exhaust sound than the sedan.

That said, the V8 has quite a narrow power and torque band, which means it really needs a rev to get moving. On winding roads, you're constantly kicking the accelerator in the guts to get the transmission to downchange in order to find the meat of the engine's power.

The XR8's a bit of an animal to drive as a result. To get a 0-100kmh of 5.9 seconds (0.2 seconds faster than the V8 Holden) it took us several attempts.

At first, it just fried the rear tyres if you give it too much throttle -- the first few times the best we could get was 6.6 seconds for the 0-100kmh pass because it lost so much time finding traction. Then we only loaded up the throttle by a small amount, say at 1200rpm, and that was enough for the perfect start. We managed two 5.9 second passes this way and called it a day.

It's a good thing the XR8 is a strong performer in a straight line because it begins to lose its composure and appeal when the road starts to get twisty. The front-end feels nose heavy driven aggressively the XR8 wants to push wide in corners. The only way out of it is to back off, or stab the throttle to try to shift some of the weight to the rear wheels. But the time this happens, the car is already squirming.

Suffice to say, we're not big fans. From late '08 XR models were offered with stability control as standard. The vehicle also gets traction control.

The brakes have a good feel and the six-speed auto transmission is a real smoothy.

Overall, the XR8's performance times surprised us because it doesn't feel that quick, particularly in-gear acceleration when the XR8 often finds itself in a torque black hole. And that sound is just something else.

Falcon XR6 Turbo

What we liked
>> Missile engine
>> Auto gearbox is a sweety
>> Better balanced than the V8

Not so much
>> Leaf spring rear end. Are they kidding?
>> The tray wobbles in rear view mirror
>> No auto up or down windows

Overall rating: 4.0/5.0
Engine/Drivetrain: 4.0/5.0
Price and Packaging: 3.5/5.0
Safety: 4.0/5.0
Behind the wheel: 4.0/5.0
X-factor: 4.0/5.0

Be prepared to hear a lot about Ford's latest turbocharged inline six over the next few years, for it is one of the best engines Australia has ever produced. In the XR6 it produces the fastest production ute we've tested.

In our satellite-timed 0-100kmh test it stopped the clocks in 5.2 seconds. And it did it like it was brushing its teeth.

That's almost a full second faster than the red SS-V and even dusts the Ford V8. As for the SV6, it's not even in the race. So how does Ford do it? A whopping 530Nm of torque from 2000-4750rpm is the first big clue.

With the latest blown Falcon powerplant, Ford features a new turbocharger designed by Garrett especially for the Falcon and completely revised intercooler and turbo plumbing. The result is minimal turbo lag and rapid acceleration.

As with the XR8, the XR6 Turbo comes standard with puny 17-inch wheels and tyres but Ford expects most customers will opt for bigger wheels and luxury packs. Consequently, our test car had the $4000 luxury pack which includes 19-inch wheels and tyres (among other things), a three-piece hard lid for $2200 and a sports bar for $750. Other items, such as the Bluetooth and iPod connector for $450 and premium paint ($400) quickly bring the price up to SS-V territory.

The XR6 Turbo's engine is nothing short of special. The only catch is that it requires premium unleaded petrol. Good news is it can at least run on regular unleaded in an emergency with reduced power.

Given the Falcon ute's skew towards the trade market, Ford engineers have done well to tame the turbo's chassis. The steering feel and response of the XR6 Turbo is much better than the XR8. The brake pedal feel is excellent, too.

The rear end is another matter and our base model comments about leaf springs and bumpy surfaces apply. It's dead-set jittery on the wrong road.

The XR6 Turbo comes with traction control and as mentioned, late '08 models were offered with stability control to keep things glued to the road a little better. All Falcons have the option ($600) of head-protecting side airbags.

The six-speed auto is the pick of the two transmissions in our opinion as it ensures the turbo is never off the boil between gear changes. It also eliminates the clunkiness from the driveline which seems to be a Ford trait.

The cabin materials are fine and the seats are comfortable, although I personally prefer the seating and steering position in the Commodore. To me, the Falcon wheel doesn't reach out far enough or high enough. That said, after a while you get used to it and enjoy the drive. Until you hit a bumpy road, that is.

THE VERDICT
In many ways there's something for everyone here. The Holden SV6 may be outgunned in this company but it's still a good proposition for anyone looking for a smart, economical sports ute that's comfortable and composed to drive. And it won't break the bank.

The Falcon XR8 ute left us wanting more. Even though the V8 Falcon's performance times gave it the edge over the Commodore SS-V, the Holden was the pick of the two taking into account the mid-range acceleration and overall driveability.

The Holden also has a superior chassis than both the sporty Fords.

However, there is no denying what a rapid piece of kit the XR6 Turbo is. It's also cheap to buy and cheap to run. It quite simply is a stunning engine crying out for a better chassis.

So if you want a six, pick the Ford. If you want the V8, pick the Holden. And if you're not prepared to switch from the red camp to the blue (or vice versa) then the verdict is irrelevant any way.

SPORT UTE FACTS OF LIFE

Holden SV6
Price: $38,490 ($39,490 for auto)
Engine: 3.6-litre V6
Power: 195kW at 6500rpm
Torque: 340Nm at 2600rpm
Transmissions: Six-speed manual or five-speed auto
Weight: 1735kg to 1740kg
Payload: 633kg
Consumption & emissions: 11.4L/100km, 269g/km
0-100km/h (measured): 7.5sec

Holden SS-V
Price
: $47,490 ($48,490 auto)
Engine: 6.0-litre V8
Power: 270kW at 5700rpm
Torque: 530Nm at 4400rpm
Transmissions: Six-speed manual or six-speed auto
Weight: 1786 to 1806kg
Payload: 508kg to 528kg
Consumption & emissions: 14.2L/100km, 338g/km
0-100km/h (measured): 6.1sec

Falcon XR6 Turbo
Price: $41,490 ($42,490 auto)
Engine: 4.0-litre turbo six-cylinder
Power: 270kW at 5250rpm
Torque: 530Nm at 2000 to 4750rpm
Transmissions: Six-speed manual or six-speed auto
Weight: 1785kg
Payload: 570kg
Consumption & emissions: 12.5L/100km, 298g/km
0-100km/h (measured): 5.2sec

Falcon XR8
Price: $41,490 ($42,490 auto)
Engine: 5.4-litre V8
Power: 290kW at 5750rpm
Torque: 520Nm at 4750rpm
Transmissions: Six-speed manual or six-speed auto
Weight: 1840kg
Payload: 540kg
Consumption & emissions: 14.6L/100km, 350g/km
0-100km/h (measured): 5.9sec

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Published : Wednesday, 5 August 2009
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