Okay, so Ray Charles saw this one coming. But that doesn’t make the final head-to-head for these big, bronzed Aussies any less compelling.
After all, not only does this back-to-back determine who’s got the bigger local-performance stick, these cars in these very specifications are how we are going to remember them when the sun finally goes down on local car-making. Them’s big shoes, I tells ya.
And I don’t want to hear any griping about how either Ford or Holden have already taken their bats and balls and gone home, leaving us with leftovers to carry us through to our date with destiny. That just ain’t true.
It’s been around for a little while now, but let’s not forget Ford not only gave the Falcon line-up a pretty effective sheetmetal birthday for the FG X version, it also stuffed the XR8’s engine bay full of five litres of Coyote V8 and left just enough room to throw in a twin-screw supercharger.
And Holden? Well, it isn’t planning on fizzing out like damp fireworks, either. In the red corner, the Commodore SS has picked up a few visual changes, some new gearing, suspension and brake tweaks and the piece de resistance: the 6.2-litre LS3 V8 nicked from the storage cage over at HSV.
They may both be the last of their respective lines, but it’s pretty easy to see that evolution ran out of steam much earlier in one than the other. The Ford seems to have called time on cell mutation earliest, while the Holden has continued to morph, develop and improve as the last handful of years have passed.
Jump inside and the XR8 is immediately the product of a decade earlier. The materials are fine, no problems there, but the layout is a bit clumsy and the feeling is of sparseness. Sparseness works for Scandinavian furniture, but not so much in performance sedan, it seems.
But more than just sparse, the Falcon’s interior is just, well, plain. Dark greys and a lack of contrast are one thing, and the clumsy graphics for the gauges are another.
The SS, meanwhile, is a much plusher place to be with a more contemporary layout and soft, high-end finishes (although we’re not sure about the highly reflective brightwork touches).
The Holden’s instrumentation is also streets ahead and there’s more kit, including stuff like electric front chairs and paddles for the gearbox in the auto version (even though our test car was a manual). The clincher: a head-up display in the SS that works beautifully.
And then there’s the Ford’s seating position. You’ve doubtless heard us bang on about this before, but the XR8 is a lot more difficult to find a comfy position in. Traditionally, the seat has been too high and the steering column too low even at its highest position. To be fair, somebody at Ford has been listening and this model is definitely better with what feels like a slightly lower altitude for the driver’s seat.
Is it better? Yes. Is it better enough? Not really, and the Commodore is not only cosier, it has a better relationship between the wheel, seat and pedals. Our major VF grind remains, though, and that’s an A-pillar that is thicker than a PE teacher and blocks the view forward and through anything even approaching a right-hand turn.
The Holden’s keyless start is a good set-up, though, and via a start button and a small lozenge on the door handle, you can unlock, enter the car and start the donk without taking the key from your pocket. They should all be this good. They’re not.
In the XR8’s case, you get an old-school central locking system and the key still needs to be inserted into the ignition barrel and given a twist. It is a one-hit wonder these days, though, and the engine will continue to crank until it fires, even after you’ve let go of the key itself. We’ll take the fully keyless option, thanks.
So, you’ve got them both fired up, how does it pan out from there?
To be honest, the difference can be felt before you’re even out of second gear. It all comes down to the information coming back to the nut holding the wheel. If you drove the Falcon first, you’d probably walk away thinking it was a reasonably accurate piece of kit. It has a fairly meaty, substantial feel through the tiller and it definitely responds when you jab at it.
But back-to-back it with the Commodore and, again, you can see where the development has gone. Not only does the Commodore have more feedback and a better quality of it at that, it’s also a more natural steerer. As in, what you get back is precisely what you expected, given what you just put in. Okay, neither is the last word in feedback fidelity, but the Holden is miles ahead.
Press on and the difference only gets greater. The SS sticks with the plot feedback-wise, while the Ford eventually gets all teenager on you and stops talking. It’ll also begin to mislead you a little as to where the front wheels are actually pointing. Okay, that will only eventuate when you’re really pushing and, to be fair, the tyres will have started to lose grip by then (which, come to think of it, could be the root of the problem).
By then, you will also have noticed that the XR8, despite the much firmer ride, has absolutely no more resistance to body roll than the SS. It also doesn’t seem to have the damping sorted out with the same degree of accuracy that the SS displays. In fact, the Holden’s front end is quite amazing for its ability to stick, steer and remain supple all at the same time.
The situation continues at the rear, too, and where the Commo has bags of power-down, the Ford will be lighting up the ESP light one helluva lot quicker. We noticed the odd thump or clunk from the Falcon’s rear end, too. Consider that the Ford’s rear-end architecture dates back to the BA of 2002, a time when an XR8 had 260kW versus the 335 of this one, and you can see how the basic design is being stretched.
Simply, this is an old car with more engine than feels necessarily good for it. Where the SS V still feels like a big, relatively heavy car (you can’t do much about raw physics) it does at least feel more alive and awake than the XR8.
The Commodore still rewards a driver who is prepared to state firmly and early where they would like the apex to occur and then sticks to that strategy. It will tolerate a mid-corner change of mind in as much as it won’t hurl you off into the scrub.
The XR8, meantime, needs even more warning that you’re about to tip it in, but it won’t want to know about any supp regs beyond that point. Try to alter its trajectory from there on and you’re in more trouble.
It all comes down to the natural-feel steering we mentioned and, not too surprisingly, mechanical grip. Frankly, the Commodore has pretty good grip by any standards, the Falcon… not so much.
In fact, while the Ford doesn’t like any rough stuff from the helm, even a delicate touch requires you to wash off more speed than you might have been expecting to. You must then be equally patient on the other side before getting into the supercharger again. And once it’s all started to slide, there’s absolutely no option but to wait until it all slows down enough for the planet to catch up under it.
This isn’t to say it’s not fun. Nope, for a car in which to do big, predictable, lairy – and safe – skids, the XR8 has the game kicked to bits. Lots of grunt, lots of wheelbase, and a relative lack of grip will always be fun in an Aussie hoon kind of way.
When it comes to stopping, the optional Brembos of the new SS come into their own, with the SS taking 37.07m metres to haul up from 100km/h. The Ford continues the Falcon tradition of feeling (or should I say, being) a bit under-anchored and needing more than 38 metres to do the same thing.
The locally developed blown V8 in the Falcon gave it an instant advantage when it was launched last year, but the addition of a couple of hundred cee-cees for the last SS has closed the gap to almost nuthin’.
The stopwatch confirms as much, and while the Ford gets to 100km/h in 5.17sec and across the first 400m in 13.25sec with a trap speed of 178.41km/h, the Commodore isn’t too far behind with 0-100km/h in 5.27sec and a 13.44sec quarter at 174.4km/h.
Both cars battled a strong headwind on the day so the times are a few tenths off our best, but the times are still relative – the Falcon is still faster, but now only just.
To be honest, the big differences in the real world amount to both the way the power is developed and the soundtrack. The blown engine in the XR8 ensures that every kilowatt hits at once and then it’s all over as quickly as it started.
The SS, meanwhile, feels strong down low and then builds and builds and builds until those 304kW are bashing down the back door. Take your pick, but either V8 does it for us.
The soundscape, meanwhile, is all Holden. Yes, the Ford sounds like a V8 and there’s a tiny bit of blower whine when you’re fair up it, but it’s muted and never intrudes.
The SS meanwhile, has a clever system of high-tech exhaust tips, a bi-modal valve and a rustic, but very effective, tube that transfers V8 music from the engine bay into the cabin without resorting to the sort of cheating that sees some makers now synthesising the engine note via a computer and the car’s sound system.
It sounds rich and bassy, it pops and bangs on over-run, and, for my money, recalls the sort of Isaac Hayes chuckle at low revs that characterised the now-superseded atmo AMG C63. If a factory Holden has ever sounded better, I’m damned if I can name when that might have been.
Pricing is more or less line-ball, with Ford asking $53,490 for the XR8 in manual form (or $55,690 for the auto as tested) and Holden asking $53,990 for the manual SS V Redline.
Based on the rest of the numbers – and our original statement that this is how we will remember these big Aussie blokes – there’s a clear winner here.
While the XR8 definitely makes a case for itself, in some ways it’s seriously off the pace and in others it’s old-fashioned in a not-so-good way. That said, it’s the best it’s ever been. But the Commodore is also the fittest, most appealing it’s ever been and, at the same time, it’s measurably better than the Ford. And that’s the nub of it, folks.
It’s the difference between the rocker who goes out in a blaze of glory, fatally crashing his car into a swimming pool having just released his best ever album. Then there’s the guy who still has the lungs and the moves, but is doomed to three decades in a shiny jump-suit and matinee shows in Vegas.
It’s all about how we will remember them and, in that sense, the Commodore SS cleans up. From the bottom of that swimming pool, of course, for such is the fate of the Aussie muscle car.
|Holden VF Series II ss v redline||Ford FG X Falcon XR8|
|Body||4-door, 5-seat sedan||4-door, 5-seat sedan|
|Engine||6162cc V8, OHV, 16v||4951cc V8, DOHC, 32v, supercharger|
|Bore/Stroke||103.25 x 92mm||92.2 x 92.7mm|
|Power||304kW @ 6000rpm||335kW @ 5750rpm|
|Torque||570Nm @ 4400rpm||570Nm @ 2200-5500rpm|
|Transmission||6-speed manual||6-speed auto|
|Suspension (F)||struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar||A-arms, coil springs, anti-roll bar|
|Suspension(R)||multi-links, coil springs, anti-roll bar||multi-links, coil springs, anti-roll bar|
|Tracks||1593/1590mm (f/r)||1583/1598mm (f/r)|
|Steering||electrically-assisted rack-and-pinion||hydraulically-assisted rack-and-pinion|
|BrakeS (F)||355mm ventilated discs, 4-piston calipers||355mm ventilated discs, 4-piston calipers|
|Brakes (R)||360mm ventilated discs, 4-piston calipers||330mm ventilated discs, single-piston calipers|
|Wheels||19.0 x 8.5-inch (f); 19.0 x 9.0-inch (r)||19.0 x 8.0-inch (f); 19 x 9.0-inch (r)|
|Tyre Sizes||245/35 R19 95Y (f); 275/35 R19 (r)||245/35 ZR19 (f); 275/30 ZR19 (r)|
|Tyre||Bridgestone Potenza RE050A||Dunlop Sport Maxx RT|
|Price as tested||$53,990||$55,690|
|Pros||New-found grunt; involving handling; value||Awesome engine; fun in isolation|
|Cons||For what it is, virtually nothing||Outdated chassis; poor ride; lifeless steering|
|Star Rating||4.5 out of 5||3.5 out of 5|