2003 Ford Falcon XR8 vs Holden Commodore SS comparison review: classic MOTOR

Mate against mate. Eight against eight. Is vengeance really sweet or is the SS' still quick enough to turn the 260kW XR8 tide?

2003 Falcon XR8 vs Commodore SS comparison classic MOTOR

This should be about whirlwinds sown and whirlwinds reaped. Of holistic engineering versus a thumping engine and blistering straight-line sprinting ability. Of the burrs that chewed at Ford’s flesh with every SS Commodore that handed out a traffic light pasting.

This feature was originally published in MOTOR’s May 2003 issue

The numbers tell the story of a 260kW Ford V8 beating up a 235kW Commodore. Of it venting years of Ford angst in a public deconstruction of everything the hottest Holden stands for. But it isn’t. It isn’t because the XR8 doesn’t. It can’t. Not in a straight line, anyway, and, for too many people, that’s the only important bit.

Chuck such things as mid-corner poise, high-speed ride quality and overall sophistication into the mix and it becomes a whole ’nother tale. The sum of the parts is impressive, for sure, but it may be too complex for simple bar-room barnies.

It is, though, the whole story. And that’s the way it needs to be told. Without the whole story, the raw acceleration numbers on the XR8 are a staggering disappointment. After all the development, after all the promise and after all the years of suffering, it’s just not fast enough. It gets, quite simply, belted by its force-fed little brother, and that’s before the bully boy Holden V8 starts getting stroppy.

Fourteen-four doesn’t ring anybody’s bell these days. Sad, isn’t it? Wasn’t that long ago it would have been regarded as a pretty grown-up number from a four door sedan. But in a world where the established competition is capable of high thirteens, it doesn’t have the edge the pre-event hype promised.

Still, we’ll wait until we can get a properly run-in and freed-up XR8 before we put the official nail into its acceleration coffin. That’s not to say the long-stroke 5.4-litre motor is an utter failure. It’d be a bloody hard marker who speared it just because it failed to set new straight-line benchmarks.

The flipside is that the XR8 has, without doubt, the most sophisticated manner of any V8 engine you can buy in a locally-built car. The noise it produces is shamelessly fabulous all the way from idle – and it’s this noise that goes a long way towards making up for its relative lack of punch.

It doesn’t just sound good, it feels good. To prove its smoothness, the XR8 carries not a skerrick of under-bonnet vibration damping. Because it doesn’t need under-bonnet damping. Damping kills unwanted tremors, and the XR8 doesn’t have any to kill. So seamless and sophisticated is the V8’s battle song that it doesn’t deliver coarseness, not at any revs, nor at any throttle openings.

A lack of punch is not a millstone the Commodore SS has hanging around its neck – certainly not when it’s proven capable of hurling itself across the quarter mile in 13.9 seconds. Holden denies we’ve ever been given, ahem, warmer jobbies, but we’ve been witness to Gen III V8 performances that made us wonder. And 13.9 is one of those.

Of itself, that isn’t such the huge concern (after all, if Holden can make it happen, so can you). What’s really curious is our inability to make any 260kW HSV sedan (which are shorter geared, remember) run that hard.

Like force-fed Subaru flat fours, the Gen III has a reputation for being very sensitive to run-in discipline, (not to mention oil consumption) and we’ve yet to drive enough 5.4 Fords to pick a trend there. The Holdens don’t have a particular reputation for any aural culture, nor is there anything much to report below about 4000 revs.

Truth is, though, that the numbers it pulls mean most people don’t care about the downside. Holden (and HSV) has been killing itself trying to address the noise issue, freely admitting the Blue Oval boys have it way better sussed than they do.

While the theoretically less powerful motor here is the drag strip killer, that’s not true in daily life.

The Ford still doesn’t punch from low revs like anybody around here had been expecting (especially looking at its stroke length), but that’s not exactly an SS forte either. Unlike the Holden, though, the XR8 lacks any significant arrival point in the rev range. It just does the compound interest caper, silkily gathering and gathering its pace until the unexpected arrival of the electronic cutout.

The engine sings beautifully, richly and deeply, stronger and louder, gradually lifting everything, everywhere with each single digit rise in speed until it just softly stops. But it engages you in no histrionics, nor startling “I’m here, let’s play” conversations.

Not so the SS. Under 4000 rpm there might not be a lot going on – a perception made all the more confronting by a foolishly long final drive ratio – but once it passes into the tacho’s angry country, it starts to seriously crank.

And it lets you know about it. An SS Commodore hitting its straps isn’t quite in STi turbo rush territory, but it isn’t far off. It starts to snarl in a metallic, edgy and slightly coarse bellow. It starts to push, right between the shoulder blades. It starts to strain the tractive potential of the rear rubber. Crack it up to its hard cut-out and it’ll be happy to give you everything its got and it’ll beg you to do it again.

The XR8 isn’t without its driveline victories, though, and its gearbox is a delight by comparison. The Tremec is the gearbox the XR6 Turbo should have had – may have won PCOTY with – though its inclusion in the lighter, faster six-pot might well have rendered the XR8 redundant, cramped between the baby brother and the brawnier GT.

Light, direct, clinically accurate and carrying a satisfyingly mechanical feel, the ’box is a clear winner over Holden’s five-speed six speeder.

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: if the shorter HSV final drive ratios are too tall, why does Holden persist with a set of nonsense cogs that has a 5.7-litre V8 unable to pull top gear? It’s a bloody insult to bang back a cog to climb slight rises at highway speeds while you’re nursing an engine of this capacity.

We’d pillory a four-pot for the same thing, except none of ’em do it much any more. Just big V8s.

Even at 140 km/h, it’s only pulling 3000rpm in fifth and 4000 in fourth. At the same speed, the XR8’s at 2500 in fifth and 3750 in fourth, yet it’s not as demonstrably off the boil at low revs. Still, neither car is poetic about top gear.

In terms of outright speed, it isn’t just on point-and-squirt that the Holden has an advantage. For all its talk of overwhelming chassis development, of new rear suspension and revised, sharper steering, what we’ve got on our hands is yet another example of a fast Falcon failing to deliver point-to-point speed – and it almost seems to be a philosophical approach rather than a mechanical one.

Whatever, though, the point is: the thing simply cannot carry SS levels of pace across the face of a corner.

The Commodore sits flatter, rolls less and fires out of corners using more of its herbs in the preferred manner. Yes, it’s uninspiring and a bit uncouth in the way it leans heavily and annoyingly on its outside front rubber, but it still hustles through second and third gear corners with demonstrably more pace than the big Ford.

While we have a track record of criticising the Holden steering feel (and slow rack), its meatier weighting is far preferable to the Falcon’s lightness when you’re getting stuck into it. The prospect of Holden weighting and Ford rack speed is an appealing one…

Still, while you’ll outrun the XR8 in an SS, that doesn’t mean the Holden’s a better gadget. It generates its mid-corner speed through a combination of stiff suspension and tyre grip, and you can read how hard somebody’s been going by the erosion levels on the shoulders of the front boots.

The chassis feels quite low-rent and its balance is inherently far less precise as well. Rip it hard and it feels like it’s got open-wheeler levels of suspension travel. You can provoke the back end into trickery, but its base stance is one of understeer until maybe the last 20 per cent of a corner.

The first thing you notice after jumping out of the Ford is the Holden’s appalling ride quality over broken ground. It might generate greater grip on the 18-inchers, but you have to wonder whether it’s really worth the pain because, over any imperfect surface, it feels less sophisticated than Jethro Clampett.

The payoff for its speed is the way it crashes through sharp-edged hits and its minimal bump absorption on even low amplitude, square-edged hits. It also transfers buckets of suspension noise back into the cabin, especially from the rear. Broken ground is a significant SS weakness and, hey, this is an Australian performance car for chrissakes!

For all of their faults, the AU XRs and T-Series cars all had far better power-down out of corners than the rival Holdens and HSVs. It’s clear that the arrival of Ford’s much-vaunted Control Blade rear set up (in place of the intricate, more expensive and heavier AU IRS) has seen the dilution of its ability to get drive to the bitumen under the pressure of pace.

The XR8 may not be as quick, but it’s more fun. It’s an enjoyable exercise in throttle control. Push it quickly and it’ll flick to gentle oversteer on the exit of third and even fourth gear corners.

It rolls more than the SS (a perception added to by Ford planting the seat above the car’s roll centre) and it’s steering is very direct, but it’s so light it’s not funny. You’ll probably never drive anything where you’ll have to concentrate so hard on taking the weight out of our hands as you tip it into corners.

Tense up to cope with the additional pace and you can unwittingly dial in more turn-in bite (or correction) than you’re looking for, and that can upset the doings. It’s like an XR6T, but it doesn’t quite have the turbo’s chassis balance.

Still, while it’s ultimate grip levels are lower than the SS, it’s easier to drive at its limits once you’ve accounted for its steering idiosyncrasies – and as a bonus it’s more entertaining to adjust its stance mid-corner, especially in second and third gear corners.

If it’s pushing, it loves to tuck the snout back to the apex on an ease of the throttle. It likes to gently flick to oversteer at the end of every hard cornering performance, like an artist signing off with a flourish.

It can cheerily be throttle-steered with a full turn of oppy lock. It’ll let you flick it from under to oversteer or back the other way, and it’s equally happy if you want to take the fast, straight line.

It’s chassis keeps its rear tyres working at all times and wears the four boots more evenly than Holden. Run the Commodore hard for a half hour burst and you’ll have ground the shoulders off the front tyres to the point of laugh-or-cry. The Ford, meanwhile, will have nary a scuff as evidence of playtime.

While lacking SS ultimate corner speed, the XR8 actually brings its rear suspension into play from the moment of turn-in. Its ride is far better on its 18s than the SS and it’s quiet in the suspension area as well. It lives happily in broken country where the Holden feels like it just wants to go home and rest its footsore underpinnings.

The Commodore’s brakes are far better than they’ve been in the past, as well. It’s a good thing, too, given the kind of momentum the SS is capable of generating these days. Still, they don’t have the awesome power of the XR8’s optional premium package, nor the Ford’s ability to adjust the car’s line mid-corner by a simple tap now and again.

We’ve never been delirious about the Holden’s pedal layout, but it’s better than the Ford’s, which now sees everything offset about one pedal further right than the steering wheel would indicate.

The Falcon interior can irritate and impress in equal measure. It’s a clean, classy package, but why significant buttons are so thoroughly hidden by the steering wheel spokes is anybody’s guess.

The seats, as well, give away the XR8’s newer, calmer outlook on life. They’re nicely cushioned and stylishly crafted, but for the heavy work (especially with its ultra-light steering and no footrest to brace yourself on) it could give you more lateral support.

The Holden has the pick of the chairs, with greater lateral support they are, for their target market, even more stylish, with the SS logo embroidered in the body colour, as opposed the XR8’s more garish red.

Even if its steering spokes are irritatingly hard on thumbs, the Commodores’ is an impressive interior upgrade. Green layoffs in the leather stitching and the similar tinges in the plastics and dials show thorough design detail and everything works pretty well, even if it makes the Falcon’s panel gaps look vacuum-sealed by comparison.

Which may highlight why these two cars don’t seem like head-to-head contenders any more. The SS has become, if anything, more focused on grabbing all the speed it can and to hell with comfort, while the XR8 is now a grown-up’s idea of a hot bent eight.

That’s why it’s difficult to pick a winner. Clearly, if it’s speed you’re after, the SS is your man. It’s simply faster. Faster in a straight line, faster through corners, faster to shred the tyres.

The XR8 is more sophisticated. It rides eerily well, even when you’re belting the pickhandles out of it. It sounds fantastic. It’s smooth. It’s balanced. It is, in all probability, fast enough. But a lot of people will be left disappointed by it. They’ve been waiting for something with more raw meat and with less emphasis on the genteel rules of comportment.

For all that, it remains that the XR8 is clearly the better car. It’s just not the fastest car.

Is it just us, or do Holden/HSV need to pump it up?

Holden doesn’t have a problem with its power steering systems. In fact, neither Holden nor the harder, faster products from across town at HSV have any steering issues. We get told this every time we ask – and we’ve been forced to ask a lot.

We won’t go right back, but in the last three years alone, we had to ask after the 2001 Bang For Your Bucks when an HSV GTS power steering pump detonated after two flying laps at Phillip Island.

At Performance Car Of The Year last year, we had our first Holden failure. At Winton, a CV8 Monaro simultaneously popped the power steering cap off and spat its fluid out through its hubs.

At BFYB half a year ago, an HSV GTO popped its pump at Wakefield Park. Fortunately, the Goulburn Holden dealer pinched a Senator’s pump and bunged it into our sick GTO. Beauty, repaired HSV. Except it didn’t stay that way and, after half a day on a very mild road course, the second pump was dying, too.

Fast forward to PCOTY ’03 and, surprise, surprise, the HSV GTS cancelled out its strong early showing by dropping its pump at Winton, pouring fluid all over the headers and smoking like a barby. An HSV man came up from Melbourne to fix it.

Then we found something new. Two fast Holdens, two different cities, same problem. First, near Lithgow, the SS went bang, splitting the small hose that runs out of the steering rack and into the cooler at the right-hand side of the engine bay.

Then, a week later, Hawley had the HSV ClubSport let go in identical fashion. Fortunately, the dealers in Lithgow and Mansfield got them going again, but fair dinkum, if they can’t be driven on a track, stop calling them ClubSports or SSs. And if you’ve got a track record like ours, let us know. Maybe we’re just very, very unlucky…

Fast Facts

  2003 Ford Falcon XR8 2003 Holden Commodore SS
BODY four-door sedan four-door sedan
DRIVE rear-wheel rear-wheel
ENGINE 5.4-litre, 32-valve DOHC V8 5.7-litre, 16-valve pushrod V8
BORE/STROKE 90.2mm x 105.8mm 99.0mm x 92.0mm
COMPRESSION 9.5:1 10.0:1
POWER 260kW @ 5250rpm 235kW @ 5200rpm
TORQUE 500Nm @ 4250rpm 465Nm @ 4400rpm
WEIGHT 1795kg 1617kg
POWER/WEIGHT 145kW/tonne 145kW/tonne
TRANSMISSION 5-speed manual 6-speed manual
SUSPENSION (f) double wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar MacPherson struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar
SUSPENSION (r) Control Blade IRS, coil springs, anti-roll bar semi-trailing arms, coil springs, anti-roll bar
L/W/H 4920/1864/1435mm 4965/1842/1450mm
WHEELBASE 2829mm 2788mm
TRACKS 1560mm (f); 1575mm (r) 1569mm (f); 1587mm (r)
BRAKES (f) 325mm grooved, ventilated discs, twin-piston calipers 296mm ventilated discs, two-piston calipers
BRAKES (r) 303mm solid discs, single-piston calipers 315mm solid discs, single-piston calipers
FUEL 68 litres, ULP 75 litres, ULP
WHEELS 18 x 8.0-inch (f & r), alloy 18 x 8.0-inch (f & r), alloy
TYRE SIZES 235/40 ZR18 (f & r) 235/40 ZR18 (f & r)
TYRE Dunlop SP Sport 9000 Bridgestone Potenza
PRICE $50,130 $49,490

Fast Figures

  2003 Ford Falcon XR8 2003 Holden Commodore SS
0-50km/h 2.53sec 2.45sec
0-100km/h 6.16sec 5.82sec
0-150km/h 12.49sec 11.37sec
0-400m 14.40sec @ 160.4km/h 13.97sec @ 168.1km/h

Our 5 Likes & Gripes

Ford Falcon XR8

1 - Got an 18 carat wedding ring? The gearknob will dent it
2 - Got no wedding ring? An XR8 might help fix that...
3 - The adjustable pedal deal is actually fairly useful
4 - Dash facia has unusual clarity and simplicity
5 - Quiet dignity and class next to bovver boy SS

Holden Commodore SS

1 - Fantastic high beam could find cellulite on Kylie’s butt
2 - Rear seat porthole is very useful if you’ve got kids
3 - Cruise control switchgear works better than Falcon’s
4 - Start with your fingers on “mode” and “up” and watch what happens to the readout
5 - If you cut the rear doors off you get a Monaro


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