Four better than six in Falcon EcoBoost
The Falcon's new turbocharged four may be half the size of the six we have become familiar with, but it is a nicer drive with a level of performance that's almost too good to be true when you factor-in its fuel economy.
Which is probably what Ford wants to hear, but with large sedan sales shrinking and no sign of the public sticking with the Falcon despite some new-found frugality, it is the fact that it is a sedan that counts more against it.
People are not really moving away from large cars, even if the stats suggest they are. The fastest-growing segment and the nemesis of big sedans is the SUV slot, with former Falcon and Commodore owners moving to crossovers, soft-roaders and family trucks - large cars themselves.
If anything they are upsizing. They are certainly going up, altitude-wise, in their search for room with a view, which is what such SUVs offer and which a sedan cannot - that and the hunter-gatherer look they impart rather than mom-and-pop three-box conformity.
By moving out of the sedan and up into a light truck or similar you are probably paying more to run your new choice than even the inefficient, thirsty sedan that fashion caused you to leap out of in the first place.
Sure you can buy a diesel version, but it does not take an accountant to tell you that once road-user charges are factored in, you will not be making any fuel-savings returns during your tenure, unless you drive huge distances.
So spare a thought for the Falcon EcoBoost. Even Ford will know that this clever combination of small-displacement modern tech with traditional large-car space is not going to arrest the trend to truckish alternatives. Also it will sadden them as it saddens me that such segment-hoppers will lose out on terrifically composed handling, German luxury sedan-like ride quality and flexible power delivery that belies not only the engine's capacity but also its cylinder numbers.
Even more obvious is that they will miss-out on the Falcon's new-found steering accuracy and communication, which comes from having upwards of 64kg removed from the powertrain in the first place, while what is left is tucked so much further back into the engine-bay and towards the centre of the car.
Ford Australia's engineers say the shift in weight distribution is not that great, and they quote that the 4.0-litre six is rated at 56:44 per cent front to rear, while the 2.0-litre EcoBoost four has a 54:46 per cent balance. The springs are slightly stiffer front and rear but the result for me was a car with uncommonly good ride quality, without feeling soft. The steering feels neat and precise and is not over-assisted, and, overall, I would say the chassis guys deserve as many plaudits as those who mated the smaller engine with this bigger car.
For all the work gone into the Falcon in order to hone its new less-is-more philosophy, there are slight, but inescapable drawbacks.
You have to use premium fuel - it is a higher performance engine after all - and it will not tow a keel-boat, but it will manage something a tad smaller and hand on heart, apart from going on vacation once or twice a year, when did you last tow more than a tonne unbraked?
The EcoBoost engine is Ford's take on what VW, Mercedes-Benz and BMW have been doing for some years, reducing engine size to do the same with fuel use, filling in for the drop in capacity - cut in half in the Falcon's case - by using high-pressure direct fuel injection, variable timing on each of its twin camshafts, and turbocharging so more energy can be generated from the smaller cylinder numbers and volume. The result: six-cylinder performance and the fuel economy of a four.
The added advantage of the Falcon EcoBoost is that the six-cylinder unit that the EcoBoost replaces is not exactly a syrup-smooth proposition in the first place, and truth be known the four sounds and feels much more refined and it is sufficiently unobtrusive for it to be beyond even severe petrolheads to tell how many cylinders are doing the work.
The Falcon XT, which is the only version of the EcoBoost car we get in New Zealand, has official consumption of 8.1 litres per 100km with a CO2 emissions rating of 192g/km. Against its six-cylinder foes, the four-cylinder Falcon has a clear advantage - if not a huge one. The V6 Toyota Aurion offers 9.3L/100km, while Holden's Ecotech 3.0-litre Commodore V6 clocks the same number - despite giving up 500cc compared with the Toyota.
Turbocharged from the get-go, the EcoBoost family, which includes 1.0-litre triples, as well as 1.6 and 2.0-litre fours, along with 3.7-litre V6s, is no modern-day Pinto block.
The first user of the engine was not even a Ford at all. Volvo uses the unit in its 60, 70 and 80-series cars and the new 40-series hatch goes like stink with it under its bonnet. Land Rover's new Range Rover Evoque has an EcoBoost four and feels like a hot-hatch. Meanwhile, Ford's own C-Max, S-Max, Edge, Fusion, Focus and Mondeo each have EcoBoost two-litre options, with perhaps the most surprising user of the unit being the base version of the latest unibody Explorer. From next month, Lincoln's Mk T also takes the engine, while even the Mustang will be offering one before too long.
Jaguar's XF has an EcoBoost 2.0-litre block, too, as its range-starter.
Like many of those front and rear-drive, longitudinal and transverse-engined cars, the Falcon's manifest also has far larger engines, namely the 5.0-litre Coyote V8s and the model's staple blown and naturally aspirated 4.0-litre sixes.
However, as in the other cases, the half-sized engine (when compared to the six), by punching beyond its weight and offering lower overall weight in the first place, gets a move on very nicely, thanks.
The engine, which is made in Valencia, Spain, incidentally, makes 179kW at 5500rpm and 353Nm of torque at a remarkably low 2000rpm, not a mile way from the six's 195kW and 391Nm.
The four's numbers may be lower, per se, but the flow of power and torque from 1500 through to 3500rpm creates super-flexible mid-range effort that simply is not there in the bigger six.
Head to head, both cars will duck under 8 seconds to 100kmh, and while the six is probably going to be very, very slightly quicker most of the time, it makes more engine and fan noise than the four, which emits a distinctive but not unpleasant rumble from about 3000rpm. Overtaking is quick and unrushed and, when up to speed, the unit just yawns along at under 2000rpm in the sixth ratio of its ZF automatic.
On my regular mileage loop, the best figure in the old six-cylinder Falcon was about 11.5l/100km, which, my notes tell me, was "pretty impressive" for a big six.
Driving the EcoBoost car, the figure was easily under 8.7L/100km for the same route, adhering to speed limits assiduously and touring rather than blasting in the twisties. With more practise and a passenger or two less than the four occupants on board, it would be plausible to aim for a sub-eight-litre drive on the same test.
With the removal of the base XT six-cylinder model from the Falcon range, the XT EcoBoost at $48,490, is the least expensive Falcon. The only other XT spec car is the six-cylinder $50,490 EcoLPI - which is Ford speak for the liquid petroleum gas version of the car. Above the XTs are the sporty XR6 and luxury G6E both with 195kW, at $53,990 and $58,990, respectively, with 270kW turbo versions of those cars asking another $5000.
The XT EcoBoost's alloy rims are smaller at 16 inches, and it has no spoilers or stickers - not even an EcoBoost badge - but its equipment level is really pretty complete, with cruise control, six airbags and a full suite of electronic chassis support, including stability control.
Being XT only, however, means the car is dull and grey inside. The textures are not as soft to the touch as some, and the seat cloth is particularly workaday for a close to $50,000 car.
The EcoBoost deserves a sports and luxury partner, say an XR4 and G4 model, to lift that ambience a little, for the four-cylinder Falcon drives well enough to deserve it. It does not lag for performance, is more refined than the six and outrides and handles most of the model's line-up.
If Ford dropped the normally aspirated sixes altogether, I will not miss them. The XT EcoBoost is well able to stand on its own four cylinders and disproves that old adage so beloved of hot-rodders, that "there ain't no substitute for cubes." There is now - EcoBoost.
FORD FALCON ECOBOOST
Drivetrain: Front-mounted RWD in-line DOHC 16 valve 1999cc turbocharged petrol four, six-speed automatic transmission.
Performance: Max 179kW at 5500rpm, 353NM at 2000rpm, 204kmh, 0-100kmh 7.1 seconds (observed), 8.1L/100km, 192g/km CO2.
Chassis: Front independent double wishbones, rear independent control blades, variable ratio power-assisted steering, vented front, solid-rear disc brakes, 16 x 6.5 alloy wheels with 215/60 R16 tyres.
Safety: Front, side and side curtain airbags, ABS, traction control, dynamic stability control, reversing sensors, child seat anchorages, Five-star ANCAP crash safety rating.
Dimensions: L 4955mm, H 1453mm, W 1868mm, W/base 2838mm, F/track 1583mm, R/track 1598mm, Weight 1606kg, Towing braked 1600kg, unbraked 1000kg, Fuel 68L.
Pricing: Falcon XT EcoBoost $48,490, other Falcons from $50,490 to $63,990.
HOT: Flexibility, economy, ride, handling, refinement, undetectable four-cylinder signature, easy to drive, comfortable family cabin.
NOT: Plasticky facelift nose-job; looks a bit plain inside; the exact same engine in FWD Mondeo is quicker and cheaper.
VERDICT: The EcoBoost Falcon is a remarkably good car you could own and never know is not a six until you tap the stationary fuel needle.