Here for the first time, WHEELS has the Four basic Australian six-cylinder cars - all priced around $3200-$3400 - to compare. lt's the biggest and most important comparison test because these are the cars most of you will buy and want to know about ... P76 Deluxe v Holden Kingswood v Falcon 500 v Valiant Ranger.
First published in the September 1973 issue of Wheels magazine, Australia's best car mag since 1953.
FOUR DAYS, 2876 miles, 182 gallons and two full notebooks later we can prove that Leyland 's P76 is fully competitive with the Big Three in its basic, Deluxe specification.
And that's the model that is really going to make or break the car because this is the area of high volume and fleet sales which make up around 40 percent of total Holden sales.
Leyland is touting P76 as being "Anything but average" and in a couple of areas there is truth in the slogan but the overall concept of the car and its execution place it within the rather narrow design confines of the average Australian car.
There are differences, of course, and some of them are important enough to make P76 an attractive buy because it does widen the choice between the "look alike/drive alike" Big Three. And these differences can mean tangible benefits for owners.
On paper there isn’t much to choose between the four -- all are front engine/rear drive packages --but a close examination reveals that P76 is the only car, in base form, with disc brakes as standard equipment.
And that's a significant plus feature for it means that while Holdens, Falcons and Valiants continue to fill the fleets with cars equipped with the totally unsatisfactory drum brakes, any fleet with P76s is going to make the roads just that much safer for every other motorist.
Among the other "differences" are rack and pinion steering, instead of the recirculating ball system used by the others; an overhead cam six-cylinder .engine rather than a conventional overhead set-up and a better specification for the standard tyres. But equated to feel on the road these features don't really make a great deal of difference.
Dimensionally the cars are very close. Wheelbase is virtually identical at around 111 inches with Valiant and P76, at 16ft, about six inches longer overall than Holden and Falcon. And the lightweight construction of P76 - it is up to 300 lb lighter than the others – does mean that it can get away with smaller, less powerful engines, as well as having a more balanced weight distribution and putting less stress on such components as brakes, gearboxes, axles and tyres.
Styling is a matter of personal choice, as we found on test. Traditional Holden buyers liked the Holden HQ. Falcon buyers like the Ford Falcon XA and so on. Most expressed an interest in P76 and none came right out and damned it, although some observers thought the grille tinny and lacking in any strong focal point, while the tail attracted almost complete thumbs down for its fussiness and sheer bulk. But from some angles the wedge shape, large glass areas and the hidden wipers gained plenty of admiters. Some, however, thought the large gap between the windscreen and the bonnet gave the car an unfinished look.
In terms of styling professionalism, the Holden with its clean, modern look, ultra-thln windscreen pillars and finely balanced appearance won out, followed by the Falcon and then the Valiant.
P76 lacks the neat detail work of the others and the fit of the panels leaves a lot to be desired, although it must be pointed out the test car was one of the first cars off the production line and later cars we have examined have displayed an encouraging improvement in this area.
Relate the styling to practicality, though, and the P76 comes off much better. Its boot is by far the biggest, it has an inch more ground clearance, although the extra rear overhang does cancel this out in some driving conditions, and there is more space around the engine for great accessibility.
For this comparison we chose the base vehicle with disc brakes, the standard cross ply tyres, three-speed gearbox and the most popular six-cylinder engines. This meant the Holden 202, Falcon 250 and Valiant 245, while Leyland offers only one six and that's, in local terminology; a 160.
Getting cars to meet this specification exactly proved impossible and for photographic purposes we ended up with an automatic Falcon (with carpets and radial ply tyres on wide rims) and a Valiant optioned up to include the Sports Pack (which runs to radial ply tyres, sports steering wheel, extra instruments and bucket seats).
However, we were able to secure a base Ranger to our required specification and a Falcon (not from FoMoCo who won't release a Falcon for road test without it coming with radial tyres and disc brakes) for further evaluation during the course of this comparison.
The Holden and P76 come as requested.
If you could buy a Falcon - at the time of writing none was available in Sydney or Melbourne due to the strike - it would be the cheapest at $3020 (plus $66 for the power-assisted disc brakes and $75 for the 250 engine to give $3161) but it seems certain that once the strike is over and production has gone back to normal, Ford will be forced to raise its prices along the same lines as GMH and Chrysler and this will add at least $100 to the price.
P76 is $3250, no options, nothing to add.
GMH's recent price rise added $150 to the price of a Kingswood to take its base figure to $3135, to which must be added $66 for power-assisted disc brakes and $66 for the 202 engine.
Chrysler added $109 to take the Ranger price to $3199, the 245 engine brings mandatory disc brakes and costs $143, with an extra $35 for the power-booster, to take the Ranger to a total of $3377.
Each car offers a wide range of options, which can change the all-but-basic character of each car.
The P76 offers a 4.4-litre V8 for another $180 so a performance bargain can be bad for $3430.
Other options on the Deluxe include four-speed gearbox ($160), automatic transmission $250, and a Luxury pack (non-reclining bucket seats, partial console with armrest, carpets and glovebox, ashtray and under-bonnet lights) for $98.
Kingswood runs the full gambit of 253 V8 ($159 over the 202 six) and 308 V8s (a further $79 over the 253), automatic transmission ($268) four-speed gearbox ($131) and reclining buckets ($88), plus extra instruments, carpets, and the more exotic equipment like air-conditioning and electric windows.
Ford, like GMH, offers the Falcon 500 in a virtually unknown number of combinations. From the base car, as designated for this test, can be added the 2V version of the 250 six ($77), 302 V8 ($58 over the 2V), 351 ($90 over the 302), four-speed gearbox ($15 5), automatic transmission ($255 ), the GS pack - instruments, bucket seats, sports wheel ($145), plus almost the same range of luxury items offered by the General.
Chrysler's cutback in its model line-up hasn't really changed very much - if you want the extra equipment you can still order it - the only change is that there is less likelihood of finding exactly what you want straight off the showroom floor.
Chrysler offers the 265 six ($85), the 318 V8 ($120), four -speed gearbox ($166), reclining or non-reclining bucket seats, sports pack (steering wheel, instruments, sports road wheels), and air-conditioning, so Chrysler is almost able to duplicate the vast ranges from Ford and GMH.
But for this test we restricted the cars to the best-selling versions, which are the cars most people buy, and drew our conclusions from these cars.
However, as we have pointed out, it is easy, if costly, to build up a totally different package by running through the options list and choosing the biggest engine, widest wheels and power everything.
If price is important above all else than the P76 must be in the box seat but - and it is a very big "but" - the real price depends on trade-in figures and dealer margins. With the present short supply situation with new cars there seems to be little need for manufacturers to offer discounts so, for the moment at least, there shouldn't be very much in it and P76 should still come out ahead if you want comparable braking and power.
Here the four divide themselves almost automatically into two brackets - Kingswood/P76 and Falcon/Valiant.
The big sixes of Ford and Chrysler give their cars a positive lead over the less powerful GMH and Leyland sixes.
But i( you think purely in terms of the cheapest car of each model - and to do this means placing the P76 at a price disadvantage - then the Leyland six has a small but winning margin over the rest. Chrysler's 215, Holden's 173 and Ford's 200 are fractionally slower through the gears and in top gear.
There's not much in it and it probably comes down to differing driver techniques.
Chrysler's 245 hemi six is not particularly smooth or quiet under acceleration but it really goes and is a clear performance leader with effortless acceleration.
Ford's 250 doesn't rev out as well and suffers from valve thrash in the high rev ranges but it is smoother and quieter than the Valiant in normal driving.
Holden's 202 lacks the torque and power of the opposition and, because it is lower geared overall, is noisier at cruising speeds and when accelerating. However, the relatively low gearing does give the car good top gear performance.
Leyland's ohc six is different. It is a big revver by comparison and needs to be stirred along through the gearbox to give a similar performance to the Holden 202. Top gear performance isn't as good as the Holden, but it is fractionally quicker through the gears. As part of the overhead cam bit the engine has a characteristic ohc whine at high revs,
An overheating problem which existed on the test car is claimed, by Leyland, to be unique to that particular engine and we hope it is right. On most occasions when the car was taken over 60 mph or run through the gears and, even sometimes when stuck in a traffic jam, the temperature gauge needle soared into the red and performance fell off.
We added water on three separate occasions and suspect a blown head gasket.
Leyland now informs us that the six-cylinder engine does tend to run warm for the first few thousand miles but it stabilises after it is completely run in and then runs at normal temperatures.
Frankly we were surprised at the results achieved in this category. Remember the cars were checked over identical roads and with drivers swapping from car to car to eliminate any discrepancy in technique.
Our first check, after 200 miles of hard driving, running performance figures and some suburban cruising, gave the P7 6 19 mpg, and a clear lead, with the other three way behind and hovering around the 15 mpg mark.
The second check, in which the cars ran together in windy mountain country with some high speed cruising, closed the fuel consumption figures up but for much of this time the P76 was overheating and this would have had a detrimental effect on its fuel consumption.
Surprise of the category was the poor performance of the Holden 202, which was expected to be almost as good as 76. However, its low gearing (and low mileage) obviously took a toll. It had to be driven closer to the limit to stay with the Falcon and Valiant which, with their big engines and high gearing, were running easy at what were high speeds in the Holden. P76, too, needed to be driven harder to keep up with the Falcon and Valiant in high-speed driving but its more efficient engine accounts for the difference.
The Holden also loses out in touring range with its small 14.5-gallon tank. P76 is probably best here because it has a 16.4-gallon tank, while the Falcons' and Valiants' larger tanks are not quite big enough to compensate for their lower fuel consumption. The Holden still suffers from a slow-filling tank and the Valiant is nearly as bad.
In terms of pure ride the Holden is still the best. It soaks up the bumps better than any of the others and is superb over rough roads, although our drivers agreed that it might be better to sacrifice some of the ride qualities for an improvement in handling.
P76 goes close to equalling the Holden in most conditions but it isn't quite as good on rough roads with some axle movement on rough corners (it is interesting to note that the P76 was the only car of the four to exhibit axle tramp when conducting the performance testing on the Castlereagh dragstrip). But the body roll is controlled better on P76 so its ride/handling compromise is superior in normal conditions.
Falcon comes next. On smooth roads it has a comfortable ride, probably the best and certainly the quietest, but without the absorption qualities of the Holden, so that when the surface changes it reacts more sharply. But if you spend all your driving time in town then the Falcon is best.
Chrysler's torsion bar suspension is set up for a soft tide and although it is smooth on smooth roads the smallest irregularity produces front end harshness that transmits through to the cabin.
This is emphasised even more on radial ply tyres. Rough road ride is poor with both noise and harshness coming from the front end, and a poorly located rear axle has the tail dancing around on corrugations.
This category is directly related to ride and it is difficult to separate the two. As with ride the handling section is divided into two areas - smooth roads and rough roads.
On good roads the Falcon is supreme. It is easy to drive and relaxing with a well-balanced suspension and chassis set to give mild understeer with oversteer available, either by lifting off or by booting on more power (although on some surfaces more power can result in an increase in understeer).
Even the low geared steering, with five turns lock to lock, isn't a problem in normal driving. However if you start pushing the car, particularly on a loose surface, wheel twirling becomes tiresome and limits the speed the car is capable of, simply because the driver can't get the front wheels turning quickly enough.
P76 has the same problem with 4.9 turns lock to lock. Its steering is light but not as responsive as the Falcons and, although the vastly better driving position helps, it can become a handful on a loose surface. With that small six it is surprising that Leyland hasn't taken advantage of this and given the car a steering system more in keeping with the rest of the specification and certainly the supposedly European influence in P76. Four turns would be a far better compromise.
The P76 SLX doesn't have tire same well-balanced feel of the V8. The response to throttle lift-off isn't as good and the driver is always aware that the chassis could take more power.
Understeer builds up as speeds rise although it can be kept within manageable limits by choosing the right line and using the throttle correctly. On tight corners we found it was possible, even with the relative lack of power, to pick up the inside back wheel and induce artificial oversteer where, on the same corner, the others went round in varying degrees of understeer.
Valiant, too, suffers from a low-geared steering system that is vague and unresponsive in the extreme. Combined with the soft suspension and the lack of a front anti-roll bar it makes the base Ranger a car for straight road running.
Only the power reserves of the hemi engine enable the Valiant to keep up with the other cars. Of course, adding wider wheels and radial ply tyres helps and probably to a greater extent than on any of the others, although at the expense of increased ride harshness.
The Valiant is capable of cruising at high speeds and has a built-in understeer which makes the car a basically safe handler but we wish the front-end wallow and pitching could be reduced.
GMH has set the Holden up for understeer, come what may, and it takes a hefty thump ort the brakes, mid-way through a corner to get the tail moving out. Otherwise it is understeer all the way and the steering efforts rise as lock is wound on. But the steering, with 4.2 turns, is the best compromise.
The Holden has the ultimate roadholding - in other words grip on the road - but the body lurch and strong understeer means it is difficult to take advantage of the adhesion and is tiring to drive hard over any distance on twisty roads.
In standard form there can be only one winner and that is P76. But for this comparison we had optioned power-assisted disc brakes on to each car and the result was much closer. We preferred the feel of the P76 and Falcon discs, which give a more responsive pedal.
The Holden and Valiant brakes tend to be too light and lacking in fine control so it is much easier to lock-up a wheel. In open road driving this means the P76, and to a slightly lesser extent, Falcon brakes can be used on entry into a corner to set the car up on the right line.
Obviously, our brake stopping distances tell only part of the story but they are a good guide to the fade qualities of the various systems. P76, as on the V8 tested last month, displayed excellent braking for the first couple of stops but then the pedal firmed up and the distances increased, probably because there just isn't enough air getting to the brakes to cool them adequately.
The Holden locked up back wheels on the first run and pull badly but once the rear drums had lost effectiveness it stopped straight every time and distances didn't show any tendency to increase dramatically.
As on the Holden the Valiant locked up the rear brakes on the first run and it needed quick corrections on to the steering to prevent the car from spinning. From then on the brakes at least stopped the cat straight although the extra weight of the Valiant meant the stopping distances were longer than for Holden or P76. Fade began to occur on the fourth stop as the pedal got spongy, and we got the impression that if we had continued the brakes would have ceased to be effective.
Falcon was more like P76, with a good pedal feel initially and straight stopping but the distances increased quickly and the pedal became hard.
Holden, Valiant and P76 have their handbrakes beside the driver's seat, only the Falcon persists with the under-dash pull-out set-up, which on the test car was surprisingly effective. So all four handbrakes work well but , and a point in the Falcon's favor is that it is much more difficult to leave on by mistake.
So many of the Holdens and Valiants we have driven have had totally ineffective handbrakes because previous drivers have forgotten to let them off.
P76 must win the braking department although there is still room for positive improvement in its system. Buy the others with drum brakes at the heavy pedal, poor stopping effectiveness and lousy resistance to fade will serve you right. Discs should be standard.
All four have three-speed column gear changes as standard. Four-speed, floor-change are optional, as are automatic transmissions with a choice of column or floor-change. None of the manual column changes has anything like the ease and precision of a Fiat column change or Renault 16. We put the P76 first because it has a better gear ratio engine combination and, a relatively light, and not too notchy, movement although some drivers did find their hand hit the windscreen when changing from first to second.
The Falcon's movements are long but light while the Holden's are short but too stiff and notchy and the Valiant's Incredibly long and vague.
Holden's low gearing means that the effective maximum speed in second gear is only 50 mph. The Falcon is almost as bad but the extra power of the big 250 engine compensates for the short second gear. The Valiant ratios are the same as Falcon but with a higher rev limit it can be run out to over 70 mph, if you can put up with the increased noise level.
Driving the three American type cars with manual changes emphasised that all are far more pleasant with automatic transmissions. Engine noise is reduced and the dreadful contraptions of gear changes thrown to the wind. For city driving - let's be honest, and say for all but about five percent of most drivers' mileage - the automatic is highly desirable in cars of this type.
It is not quite as necessary on P76. For a start the ohc engine relates well to the gearbox but more important the relatively small six loses out badly in performance when tied to the automatic, and fuel consumption suffers too.
Here the Falcon is an easy winner. Its engine is quieter and on most road surfaces very little noise or wind whistles get through to the cabin. P76 is next, although its position depends largely on the fit of the doors. If they are poorly located then wind noise will increase dramatically and it would be pushed further down the ratings scale.
We have rated the Valiant and Holden equal. The Holden has more engine noise at cruising speeds and some wind roar where the Valiant has plenty of road noise, some wind roar and engine thrash under acceleration, although it is quiet at cruising speeds.
It is in this area that the biggest basic difference between the P76 and the others lies. P76's driving position with the standard bench seat is so far in advance of the Holden, Falcon and Valiant it reflects directly into other areas such as driver comfort on a long trip, and steering control. Once you have driven P76 you realise just how bad the others are.
Not only is the actual seat placement better but the seat itself is more comfortable with correct padding and reasonable side support, a deep cushion and high squab raked at a good angle - it's not too upright, but equally, not too reclined. And the relationship between the seats, steering wheel and pedals is excellent. The other cars seem to have been designed for drivers with long legs and short arms.
It is difficult to decide which of the others is best but we finally settled on the Holden. GMH has been improving its seats lately and especially the Kingswood bench.
Padding location has been improved, particularly on the squab, but the cushion isn't as good because the seat slopes away at the edges so that the driver tends to slide off, even when his seat belt is tight.
But the steering wheel is further away than on Falcon or Valiant and the seat is higher mounted, which does help visibility but gives the impression that the driver is sitting on and not in the seat. Pedal position is poor, even with the disc brakes, and the distance between the accelerator and the brake is excessive. But the car feels smaller than the others and more easily manageable with superb visibility to the side and front but, as on the others, a blind spot over the driver's shoulder.
Ford's Falcon places the driver so close to the steering wheel we suspect the bench seat on the test car may have been incorrectly located, or at least on the forward of the two mounting positions. The cushion is very short and the squab too upright. There is a real lack of stretching room for tall drivers.
Because the seat movement is so restricted (even a five-feet-eight driver had the seat right back and wished for more travel) the top of the windscreen seems very close to the driver's head.
If anything the Valiant's bench seat is worse. It is more slippery, so that the driver slides around and has to hold onto the steering wheel for support. The seat lacks padding and is mounted so high that the steering wheel - even with its flattened off lower section – fouls the driver's legs.
Falcon wins on control layout, which makes its lousy driving position all the more annoying. Wiper/washer and light controls are all easy to reach and see, whereas those on P76 and Holden are hard to reach behind the steering wheel and can be difficult to see. Those on the Valiant require a long reach and are crude in their action. It is disappointing that P76 fails in this regard because, If it were truly European oriented in its interior, steering column stalks would be mandatory.
Visibility gives Holden a win, with P76 next, followed by Falcon then Valiant.
Valiant bas a real big car feel, which some people might enjoy, but it does mean correct lane placement is difficult.
P76 has the roomy front compartment while Falcon feels confined because seat travel is restricted.
There is not much in it but P76 has a definite advantage in interior space. It's an inch here and an inch there but it all adds up to give the Leyland challenger a more spacious interior. In important dimensions, like the distance between the dashboard and rear seat squab, the P76 is two inches ahead of its nearest rival, the Valiant.
P76 has a wider range of front seat travel so the driver can get further away from the steering wheel and the pedals. This does reduce rear seat leg room but the P76 has a much deeper rear cushion so it's a line-ball decision.
A close check on our interior specification chart - and remember these are our own figures and not those supplied by the manufacturers - shows up the other areas of P76 supremacy. In our earlier articles about P76 we have been critical of the low rear seat cushion and this has been confirmed.
The rear cushions on the others are mounted higher, to reduce headroom to a minimum on the Holden and Falcon.
And the cushion is poorly designed on the Valiant, which lacks support on the side edges so that the seat collapses. The Falcon has plenty of padding on the side but too little in the middle, while the Holden misses out over the transmission tunnel.
The problem is so bad that all three are best considered comfortable for two people over any kind of distance. Not so on P76, it has plenty of room for three, apart from the previously mentioned low squab which you can get used to.
All four are equipped to a similar level but P76 has a hazard warning switch, night/day mirror, hidden windscreen wipers, huge glove-box and superb full-width windscreen demister.
All four cars have heater/demisters with two-speed fans, armrests on all four doors, two-speed wipers with electric washers, cigarette lighter and a limited range of instruments.
Valiant is the only car lacking face -level ventilation. Ford's vents are probably the best, with good fine adjustment and excellent flow-through volume, which can also be assisted by the electric fan.
Holden vents lack wide adjustment and can't be helped by the fan so that the volume of air passing through at low speed is poor.
P76 vents are located too low on the dashboard to be of much benefit for the driver but they do a good job of keeping his knees cool. Without the fan the volume is poor but at least it can be assisted. Leyland also has a very good system of fresh air vents mounted at foot level which work independently of the face-level system.
Valiant is stuck with crude floor level vents which do, however, allow vast volumes of air into the cabin.
Rubber mats are standard across the board and the standard of trim, as expected is not of a high quality, although the P76 upholstery is stitched and not welded.
Access to all four cars is good, but because its front seat is better located, it is easier to slide in behind the wheel of P76. However, the front and rear doors of the Leyland lack positive door stays.
P76 by a mile. It has by far the biggest and most usable boot and puts the others to shame. The spare wheel is sensibly located in the left side fender where it can be reached easily even if the boot is being used. Falcon has the spare in the floor, which makes the boot shallow, while Valiant and Holden put the spare right in the boot.
Still Holden. It feels tight and strong although both Falcon and Valiant have improved in this area. The Falcon especially was impressive although it didn't quite match the Holden. The XA we drove showed a return to the solid feel of the XY model while the Valiant paintwork and interior finish is a vast improvement over the first of the VJ series.
P76 has a long way to go yet. The fit of the body panels, the cheap, imitation wood around the dashboard and the rattles behind the dashboard were disappointing.
Clearly, P76 is right in there and capable of taking on the others. There are still rough edges to iron out and it doesn't really live up to the European image bit, and we might wish for more power, but as a first effort in this class it works surprisingly well.
Last year, when we did this comparison, the Holden won. Now we are not so sure. Ford's quality control on Falcon has improved out of sight and the Falcon is the kind of car the XY was. If only that bench seat were better, there is no doubt it would be the outright winner, largely because it is so relaxing and pleasant to drive.
The Holden needs a quieter engine and more work on control layout and pedal position, but it still has all the traditional Holden qualities and in our view is the best looking.
The Valiant is difficult to judge. It has the most powerful engine and the best performance for the money and, if you use it, a real American car feel, but it is rather crude in many respects.