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First Drive: BA Ford Fairlane

By Feann Torr

BA Ford Fairlane

2003 BA Ford Fairlane

In 1967 Ford launched the ZA Fairlane. It was longer than the standard Falcon of the time, and is credited with pioneering the locally-built long wheelbase (LWB) vehicle segment.

Despite the Fairlane's history, it is the Statesman - of arch-nemesis car maker Holden - that sits atop the LWB prestige car throne: Holden sells about 600 Staters per month, while the AU model Fairlane averages 200.

While Ford is the first to admit that much of the local LWB luxury car market has been poached by 4WDs - luxury or otherwise - the Blue Oval aims to take back a significant share of the prestige Aussie car market with a fresh new BA Fairlane range.

And, after punting the new Fairlane through the Barossa in South Australia, it's clear that Ford is very serious about its new-for-2003 LWB vehicle.

"The BA version represents nearly 40 years of improving that [Fairlane] concept and is the finest example we have yet produced," said Ford Australia President Geoff Polites at the car's launch. "Building on the extensive values we engineered into the Falcon range, the BA Fairlane range redefines the term prestige car."

And Polites ain't half wrong either. Sure, the thing steers well (more on that later) and has a supple ride, but Ford has addressed customer concerns about the styling of the AU Fairlane, spending roughly $35 million dollars on the new car.

Exterior design head-honcho Graham Wadsworth had plenty to say about the look of the new Fairlane: "We listened long and hard to customer concerns and worked extremely hard to provide them with a car they would justifiably be proud of.

"We're confident the substantial design work we've performed on the BA Fairlane has created a prestige car that clearly defines it as a status symbol."

The new look is fairly subtle, though very agreeable to the eye, with lots of new sheet metal adorning the rear end. One of the less obvious, but more important aspects of the new car's appearance is its lower stance. This gives it a more purposeful look -- like that of a German luxo barge -- and the wheels fill out the arches tastefully.

BA Ford Fairlane

The convoy of Fairlane's turned quite
a few heads in and around Adelaide

"It's so important to get the car sitting right and that's something I'm confident we've achieved. The BA Fairlane hugs the road.

"You can't over emphasise that point. The relationship between the rocker and the floor has to be absolutely as tight as you can get it," enthused Wadsworth, who worked in Germany for BMW before he moved to Ford Australia.

"We've made it a much more purposeful looking car. It looks sportier, more powerful and much more athletic."

Speaking of athletic, the Fairlane range now stretches to three: The Fairlane Ghia, LTD and the new G220, which has more responsive handling and a sporty look, designed to appeal to a younger demographic.

When questioned on the likelihood of an HSV-inspired Ford Performance Vehicles LWB model (packing at least 260 if not 290 kilowatts of V8 'Boss' power), Ford Pres Geoff Polites said such a vehicle isn't in the pipeline, but not completely out of the question.

While the car's freshly dry-cleaned suit is somewhat restrained, with the rear end getting most of the new-look treatment (albeit with the Falcon's brake lights), differences to the BA Falcon include a wider grille (with trademark horizontal bars), unique wheels, new rear end and 3/4 panels, new deck lid and new bumpers (aprons) fore and aft.

Vice president of product development at Ford, Trevor Worthington, described it as a "look of craftsmanship," and we'd have to agree. At the very least it's an improvement over the outgoing AU-designated Fairlanes, and at best a civilised and sophisticated-looking prestige car.

Step inside the new range of Fairlane's however, and that sophistication takes another step up. "The Fairlane interior generates a feel of precision, quality, comfort and driving pleasure," said Ford Interior Design Manager Marcus Hotblack.

The Fairlane Ghia comes standard with a reverse sensing system, premium audio with 6-disc in-dash CD, dual zone climate control, supremely comfy leather seats and woodgrain trim.

There's also an intelligent safety system, including collapsible pedals, ABS, passenger and driver airbags, side airbags, mobile phone presenter (with wiring) and if you like you can even ask for the fancy DVD system and Sat Nav to be installed (standard on LTD).

BA Ford Fairlane

There are worse places to be than in a Fairlane

Next up, the G220 gets the same package as the Ghia, but with 17-inch Elegance alloy wheels, ebony headlight bezels with unique lens and redline leather seats with warm charcoal perforated leather inserts among other things.

Lastly, the top-shelf LTD gets the same items as the Ghia, but some seriously impressive rear seats, bolstered with leather right to doors edge for an almost couch-style rear bench.

An electric sunroof also makes the cut, as do leather seats with LTD emblems, 10-way adjustable driver and front passenger seats, leather wrapped Sequential Sports Shift with LTD emblem and electrochromic (auto dimming) rear view vision mirrors to name just a few.

Drive

Electrically adjustable leather seats - that are suitably plush, without being too suffocating - ensure the already good driving position can be tailored for a myriad of body sizes, and the positioning of the wheel and gear shifter (autos only at this stage) makes for pleasantly relaxed ergonomics.

Oh, and there's absoutely acres of room, front and back, too.

The adjustable pedals (also on BA Falcon) proved a welcome addition, and prodding the throttle on the Fairlane Ghia, the entry-level model if you like, quickly transmits plenty of torque (up to 380 Newtons) from the refined and smooth-revving 4.0-litre, 182kW straight six-cylinder engine.

Whether in auto mode or the fancy tip-tronic sports shift, all three Fairlane models felt very spritely on the road, and had no problems efficiently overtaking hay-loaded trucks and meandering hatchbacks.

It was strange, because although I was acutely aware of driving around a number of heavy LWB vehicles (ranging from 1770 to 1865kg) measuring almost two metres wide and more than five metres in length, they certainly didn't feel that way.

This is testament to the excellent tuning job the Ford white-coats have done with the suspension, which incorporates the tasty Control Blade IRS (independent rear suspension), and the way the new cars handle is in stark contrast to their massive size.

The Ghia and LTD models had great turn in, which allowed you to approach corners at much higher speeds than you'd otherwise think for a car of this size. They changed direction at speed without exhibiting any laziness, which was unexpected, though very welcome.

BA Ford Fairlane

Ford's new Fairlane is now a serious contender

While the BA Fairlane's ride lower than their AU brethren, the general ride and road feel of all vehicles was impressive, soaking up lumps and bumps with aplomb - just like a prestige car should.

Of course, the longer wheelbase helps here, but it shows that Ford has worked hard on getting the damping, rebound and spring rates spot on. The interior is solidly damped against outside noise too, making for a relaxed and easygoing journey.

For me, the pick of the bunch was easily the G220, which packs Ford's 3-valve, 5.4-litre single overhead camshaft V8 mill. With some 470Nm on offer @ 3250rpm, sinking the boot was an absolute joy, resulting in a smooth surge of acceleration that tenderly pushes you into the cushy seat backs.

Coupled with a lovely automatic gearbox, the 220kW engine (which also ships with the LTD model) had no problems hauling the G220 about, and combined with a sportier suspension tune than the other two Fairlane variants and larger 17-inch alloy wheels, the G220 ate up the corners with glee, and wasn't too fussed with the less-than-perfect blacktop of the Barossa Valley (read: pot holes the size of Texas) either.

Weight transfer when quickly changing directions was commendable, and really, if it's a drivers car you're after, then you can't go wrong with the next generation of Fairlanes, and the G220 in particular. They really do offer a great sense of control and won't protest one iota when pushed (relatively) hard.

It's interesting to note that Ford had essentially invented, and then dominated the locally-built prestige LWB segment for 30 years, but then lost the plot (to put it nicely), allowing Holden to move in and dominate.

But with the arrival of the new BA Fairlane range, and the exciting new G220 in particular, the Holden vs. Ford war is going to be anything but civilised...

Ford is hoping to lower the average age of its Fairlane customers from 56.9 years old to 52.7, and the G220 is the tool for the job. Ford estimates that some 25 per cent of BA Fairlane's sold will be of the G220 variety, though after driving it, and judging by the booming XR range of Falcons, we reckon it'll be an even higher percentage.

There are a few sour points to the new Fairlane range, most of them based around interior materials used and the lack of a techno-cool twin-screen DVD system (a la Caprice), but if first impressions are anything to go by, Holden better watch out.

Pricing:

Fairlane Ghia: $54,950
Fairlane G220: $62,270
LTD: $72,070

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