First published in the August 2012 issue of Wheels magazine, Australia's best car mag since 1953.
In this latest address to Aussie drivers, Falcon and Camry come to the four with boosted incentives, while Commodore and Aurion set out to prove that a six still has clout at the polls.
FAIRER critics of the Australian automotive industry point first to its continued need for taxpayer-funded grants, then to the sales charts, and quickly call for factory closures. Difficult to argue with if a country is run only by its balance sheet. Harsher opponents tag the industry as a lumbering dinosaur, unable to compete in a global environment and unworthy of funds to prolong its inevitable extinction. That bit requires a correction.
A decade ago, a 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo Ford Falcon with 353Nm, and a petrol-electric Camry that claims 5.3L/100km combined, would have seemed impossible. These newest locally-built models inject innovation into the large-car segment and illustrate the industry’s flexibility to adapt to market conditions – specifically, to focus on consumption and emissions improvements. On paper, the Falcon Ecoboost and Camry Hybrid are a match for anything offered by overseas manufacturers. But are they a better choice than the traditional, six-cylinder Holden Commodore and Toyota Aurion? Are the natives good enough to be worth making in their own right? And should we be buying more of them?
Official ADR consumption figures, and the waning popularity of large cars, is primarily what has driven changes to the old big-six formula. Bright spark of this group is the Camry Hybrid. The electric motor both takes a load off the 2.5-litre petrol four and helps boost combined outputs to 151kW and around 350Nm – properly six-pot competitive.
Re-routing exhaust gases rather than regenerated electricity helps the 495cc-smaller Falcon engine achieve even more impressive numbers – 179kW and 353Nm. However, its 8.1L/100km claim is 2.8L higher than that of the petrol-electric Toyota. The naturally-aspirated V6 Commodore, downsized to 3.0-litre capacity three years ago, offers less torque than the fours, at 290Nm, but more power, at 190kW. Its 8.9L/100km ADR is 0.8L worse than Falcon, and 0.4L better than the 3.5-litre V6 Aurion, which posts a stronger 336Nm and benchmark 200kW. In offering the biggest engine here, the Aurion is actually the most ‘traditional’ of this quartet, the only one that makes no engine-downsizing concessions for the environment. It is the thirstiest car here on paper.
We’ve gathered a group of (mostly) base models. You recognise the badges – Omega, XT and AT-X. The Camry Hybrid HL is the luxury-grade exception, as a base H wasn’t available to test. However, although entry variants are fixtures on fleet and hire-car lists nationwide, there are a few reasons why base can be best. Without the fake carbonfibre or plastichrome inserts of sports and prestige variants (both are present on the Camry) the entry-level cars are attractively functional and utterly unpretentious. They also represent excellent value. Best to ignore their $37-42K recommended retail prices when ‘limited edition’ models are frequently flogged to private buyers, with more standard kit, for around $33K on-road.
Although this price range is populated by excellence – that’s everything from Mazda CX-5 to Volkswagen Golf GTI – there are things that the large lads still do best. Seats, for example. The driver’s seats of all four are wonderfully broad and superbly supportive, with a vast range of adjustment (four-way electric for Ford/Holden, eight-way for the Toyotas), so clearly designed to allow drivers to demolish distance without reaching for the Dencorub. And if you’re breeding above the national average – 1.9 births per family, according to the 2011 census – then forget any compact SUV and check the rear benches here. In particular, look to the Commodore, which triumphs with a deep, tilted cushion and the most legroom. Compared with the Toyota twins, the Holden is 74mm wider, which results in more generous shoulder room for three rear passengers. The Falcon, its body only 31mm narrower than Commodore’s, gets a similarly wide and cushy rear bench. However, the Ford also has the least legroom here, partly because the Camry and Aurion have a shorter, flatter cushion that gives extra space at the expense of under-thigh support.
Just as an LPG cylinder robs taxi boot space, a battery-pack steals room from the Camry Hybrid’s rear, reducing its cargo capacity to a small-hatch-like 350 litres. That’s 165-litres less than the petrol-only Aurion, which also adds a split-fold rear seat. The 496-litre Holden only gets a ski-port, to the 535-litre Falcon’s split-fold, though both utilise bootlid gas struts, a far more elegant solution than the Toyota’s dated, luggage-crushing goosenecks.
Space and comfort are longstanding large-car virtues. What sadly hasn’t changed are the quality shortfalls of locally-built cars. The Toyotas are, expectedly, best for fit and finish, but their modern interiors are let down by plastic moulding across the dashboard that imitates leather stitching, buttons with all the tactility of an iPod rip-off, and inelegant, oversized audio fonts. Both Aurion and Camry are unique in offering a standard driver’s knee airbag and reversing camera (rear sensors are standard on the Ford, optional on the Holden).
Ford’s entry-level FG is best for design and ergonomics, if not quality. Charcoal-grey plastics contrast nicely with the (optional and impressively intuitive) eight-inch colour touchscreen display, but there are brittle edges to its mismatched plastics, many of which don’t fit as well as they should.
Meanwhile, the six-year-old VE Commodore dash blends rubbery plastics with similarly sub-par finish. Despite a belated Series II update – if this were the VT generation, the VZ finale would soon be arriving – the addition of a colour touchscreen interface and the door grabs from the Caprice hasn’t lifted a cabin that screams desperation for next year’s VF overhaul.
Get driving, and the initial largely level playing field quickly shifts. Clearly it’s a fight between a four and a six for the best drivetrain here.
The Ford 2.0-litre Ecoboost engine delivers a blow to its 4.0-litre in-line six team-mate that rates a surprise round-house. With peak torque delivered at 2000rpm, it captures the effortless character for which all Falcons are renowned. Even the longest and steepest of the Hume’s hills didn’t force the ZF auto out of torque-converter lockup; at freeway speed in sixth, the engine spins just 200rpm above peak twist. Yet the Ecoboost also takes a swing at the top end of the tacho like no Falcon lump before it. So quickly does the engine spin to its 6700rpm cut-out that the auto occasionally pauses before delivering the next ratio. The Ecoboost sounds a bit four-cylinder thin and weedy at low speeds on light throttle, but does introduce deeper, smoother sonics when pressed. Our base XT, on low rolling resistance Goodyear ‘Fuel Max’ tyres, lights up the rears off the line and hammers three figures in 6.5 seconds on its way to a 14.5sec quarter at 156km/h. No need for a derogatory tone when referring to this four-cylinder Falcon.
Only after driving the Aurion could you find the Falcon Ecoboost a fraction slow. The Toyota’s 3.5-litre/six-speed auto drivetrain is carried over from the 2006 first-generation, but this new model weighs 65kg less, at 1525kg. Forget comparing its performance with its rivals here – this humble entry-level sedan will frighten Subaru WRX and Commodore SS owners with its 6.1sec sprint to the 100km/h benchmark. But it’s only that brisk if you turn off the stability control and axle-tramp off the line (there are owners who will do this – see breakout). The V6 also has a lovely, raunchy engine note and a crisp-shifting auto that makes the Ford and Holden gearboxes feel slow. Surely you could safely bet on the Falcon beating the Aurion for consumption, though? Hold tight, Hansie Cronje.
Sucking fumes are the Camry and Commodore, both of which reach 100km/h in the mid-to-high sevens. As ever, Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive feels efficient. The trip computer flow chart diagram directs arrows from wheels to the batteries, to indicate that braking or coasting energy is being harnessed to charge the battery; then arrows illuminate from both motors to the front wheels, telling you that it’s using all its grunt; then, occasionally, it leaves the petrol engine icon on an empty island, to show that it’s switched off. An EV-only button can also be pressed to whirr around carparks … but only at speeds under 30km/h, only on a light throttle, and only if the batteries have decent charge. Keep within those limitations, and the Camry is almost prayer-room silent. Go the other way, however, and with a flattened right foot, the 2.5-litre Atkinson-cycle engine chimes in with a loud, unpleasant graininess that’s held at a high-rpm constant by the continuously-variable transmission.
Ironically, those raised on a diet of effortless big sixes will feel more at home in the Falcon and Camry fours than the V6 Commodore. The all-alloy, 60-degree, direct-injected 3.0-litre isn’t what you’d call slow. It is, however, what you’d call harsh and hollow, an engine that struggles to propel this 1690kg sedan. The throttle needs to be treated like a cattle prod to urge the engine into its mid-range, necessary to maintain a set speed. The revised 6L45 auto is now keener to pick lower gears early, to help disguise the lack of torque, but it remains slow on the uptake; on one incline the engine couldn’t hold 80km/h in sixth, so the gearbox shuffled to fifth, but that necessitated easing the throttle to keep the same speed, which meant the auto immediately grabbed top again. Only after the gearbox hunted back and forth three times did it prudently hold the lower ratio, leaving the engine to spin (and presumably drink) hard.
The dichotomy of the Holden is that it teams the worst drivetrain of this bunch with the best steering and suspension. So fluid is the VE rear-drive chassis, so wonderfully plush are the spring and damper rates of the Omega, and so light and delicate is the steering, that the combination is alluring beyond the car’s entry-level status. It remains as adept at wafting over the awful pockmarks and divots of urban arterials, as it is secure during three-figure-speed sprints across undulating tablelands, as it is enjoyable rolling onto its outside-rear when having a crack at wide, smooth bends.
Yet, for outright cornering ability alone, the newly four-tified Falcon proves even better. Lifting 60kg off the front axle (compared with the six) has liberated the Ford’s front end. Where the VE is fluid, the FG Ecoboost is downright frisky. The immediacy of its turn-in surprises after stepping out of its more measured rival, the nose darting keenly towards the apex. That first tightening-radius corner approached at speed had my left foot hovering instinctively over the brake pedal mid-corner, expecting a trace of understeer. Instead, the Falc leans on its outside front tyre with commitment. Quickly spool-up the Ecoboost four and the rear boots pull the rope tight on your cornering line. The newfound agility, and lightness on its feet, feels incredible for a car this size.
It’s likewise incredible just how soft the Falcon is when tackling anything other than smooth surfaces. The first hint that this may be a problem came when ferrying a carload of friends to dinner the night before this test. The Ford shares the Holden’s wonderful absorbency – it’s possibly even cushier – yet not its tight body control. More than one suburban crest and ridgeline resulted in a slam-dunk on the bump stops. On our ride road the Falcon was challenged by successive undulations, its front bumper kissing the coarse-chip at one point, resulting in slower speed and less comfort than the Commodore. The XT Ecoboost lacks a rear anti-roll bar and runs a softer suspension tune than the G-Series variants, which surely goes a long way to explaining the problem. The switch on all Ecoboost variants from a variable-ratio steering rack to a fixed one has resulted in another slight step backwards. While the on-centre sharpness of the
BA/BF generation has been reintroduced, the weight and connection of other FG variants has been lost.
In our launch drive of the new Aurion (Wheels, June 2012), the standard suspension tune proved disappointing, mixing a fidgety ride with soggy handling. Although we drove a mid-range Prodigy variant at launch, Toyota confirmed that the set-up is common to the non-Sportivo variants; the single difference is that the AT-X runs 60-aspect, 16-inch tyres compared with the Prodigy/Presara’s 55-aspect 17s. Turns out the footwear change makes a dramatic difference to the way the Aurion composes itself on all roads. The chubbier rubber complements the firm spring and damper rates nicely, replacing the ever-present edginess of the luxury variants with a newfound, well-rounded compliance. There are handling benefits, too. Less grip from both ends allows the AT-X to feel decently balanced, and surprisingly composed and enjoyable, tackling sweeping bends.
Swapping into the Camry Hybrid HL, which rolls on 55-aspect 17s, confirms the superiority of the Aurion on smaller hoops. The petrol-electric, mid-range Toyota is constantly restless, whether around town or on country backroads. Neither front-driver offers the tight-corner agility and verve of the rear drivers, succumbing early to understeer. However, the Camry demands its driver brake dee-e-e-p into a bend to maintain a cornering line, the rear unmoved to slightly slide with the fronts as the Aurion cooperatively does.
Where both siblings trump the Holden and Ford is with their excellent road noise suppression – on coarse-chip surfaces, especially, these sedans are superbly hushed. The Falcon, which benefits from the firewall sound-deadening measures introduced on diesel Ford Territory last year, in turn offers superior NVH to the Commodore.
There are other reasons why the Camry is an inferior drive to its stablemate. Both electric steering set-ups share an on-centre vagueness and aren’t particularly quick; however, where the Camry’s is deadweight, the Aurion’s at least adds meatiness on rotation. The Camry’s regenerative braking feels wooden and touchy; the Aurion’s pedal is more progressive and natural.
If the point of the petrol-electric Camry – and indeed altering the traditional big-six formula – is to simply reduce fuel consumption, then it wins this contest, easily. Across a 750km mix of urban, country and freeway driving, it returned an outstanding 6.5L/100km. However, it is also the least cohesive car here, its drivetrain efficiency offset by unpleasant acceleration noise, merely decent dynamics, weightless steering and grabby brakes. Its hybrid tech also forces a bootspace compromise.
Swapping between the Aurion and Commodore serves to magnify their contrasting abilities – the Toyota V6 is a revelation after suffering the Holden donk, while the steering and handling of the Omega ousts the AT-X by a similar margin. The Aurion then steams ahead for cabin quality and quietness, and secures its silver medal at the bowser – its 3.5-litre engine slurped 9.5L/100km on test, just 0.2L above its combined ADR; the smaller 3.0-litre Commodore chugged 13L/100km, a full 4.1L above its offical figure.
That leaves the Falcon Ecoboost with the gold. It combines the drivetrain excellence of the Aurion with the dynamic appeal of the Commodore and sits between them for consumption, recording 10L/100km on test. It may introduce a consumption curio – turns out, the Ford forced four and Holden downsized six are thirstier than the traditional, larger-capacity Toyota – but the switch to a four-pot Falcon is for the better beyond economy numbers. It is a fine drive, and the talented locals involved in its creation deserve praise. But Ford needs to promote the Ecoboost’s virtues, because without a boost in popularity, this could be the Falcon’s final flight.