Over the last three decades Australian motorsport has embedded a Ford versus Holden battle in our psyche with King of the Hill at the legendary Bathurst circuit being the aim. For the past few years, Holden’s HSV with its lion badge has ruled the jungle, but hot from recent V8 Supercar success, Ford Performance Vehicles’ new GT is billed as the ‘lion tamer’.
We couldn't take the GT to the wildebeest-infested grassy plains of the Serengeti to test its ability against the big cat, so we settled for something equally as wild: Te Henga (Bethells Beach), about an hour west of Auckland, New Zealand. This rollercoaster of a road winds from Swanson through the Waitakere Ranges foothills and out to one of the most beautiful beaches on the west coast. It’s here they filmed Hercules and Xena on land still owned by the Bethells family, and the road is a test of any car with its sudden elevation changes, adverse camber corners and blind brows.
The GT is based on Ford’s ubiquitous Falcon and has been developed in Australia by Ford Performance Vehicles using race car technology. What you get for your money is stuff that makes it go round corners faster (suspension tuned by V8 Supercar and Nations Cup driver John Bowe, a body shell that’s 88% stiffer than the previous model, and a torque sensing limited slip differential); and stuff that subjects you to extreme longitudinal g-forces via the pedals (a thirsty V8 and some huge brakes).
So capable is the GT that you find yourself catching up with the wildebeest of the car world with alarming regularity. They can be dispatched cleanly after a short chase, though, despite the GT’s bulk. Acceleration is not a problem, with 100kph (62mph) coming up in around 5.8 seconds. Equally impressive are the twin-piston brakes with their grooved and vented rotors allowing you to brake late, balance the car on the throttle and rocket out of a corner.
But GT stands for Grand Tourer – am I in danger of driving it like I’d drive a Porsche 911? Probably. Certainly it’s got some racing genetics, but Grand Tourers should be comfortable enough to conquer the motorways – which this is - and have a turn of speed to make it fun and blurry, which it does very adequately. In fact, turn on some calming music through the 100-watt stereo, use about a quarter throttle and you can waft along relatively serenely at camera-challenging speeds, not even aware there’s an enormous V8 lurking under the bonnet. But, bury the drilled aluminium pedal into the carpet and you won’t be listening to the stereo as the exhaust itself is a symphony.
The crescendo of sound is orchestrated by the 5.4-litre Boss V8 and it sounds different to an HSV. The Boss V8 is essentially a truck engine developed for Ford’s Expedition – an SUV so enormous you could fit motors and a family of koala bears in the engine bay. Except it’s been squeezed into the GT, leaving its bonnet with a feature that would require contours on a topographical map. Looking at the bonnet you’d think there would be some gigantic forced induction system perched on top of the block ready to suck in small birds and frail old ladies, but it’s a result of Ford’s mandate that there must be at least a 20mm gap between the engine and the bonnet.
You don’t need traction control, mate
All these cylinders add up to a whopping 520 Newton-metres of torque and 290kW (390bhp), which makes you glad for traction control, especially around tight and windy roads like these. You’d have to be an absolute lunatic to turn traction control off in the wet, though in the dry the Dunlop 245-width tyres don’t easily get the better of the tarmac – it’s relatively safe.
The fact that the Ozzies have made the traction control switch so accessible is almost like saying, “We only gave you traction control as a token safety device, but are you a bloke, or a sheila? You don’t need it, mate .” With 390 horsepower and enough torque to peel the crust from the earth I’d expect to need some secret code and government permission to disable it.
If you want to have some fun the handling and oversteer points are fairly predictable with traction control off, but only if you’re using the sequential gear change, as it has a tendency to kick down fiercely in auto mode, and I’d rather not end up trading blue paintwork with a roadside kauri tree. Unfortunately, though, the sequential changes are tad sloppy on the upshift and slightly jerky on the downshift. Perhaps an electronic ‘blip’ of the throttle on the downshift would have helped. Ford NZ didn’t have a manual version for this test, and my left foot was itching for the extra control a clutch gives you.
Still, if the only driving you’re going to do is on a motorway or smooth, sealed roads, and you need a bit of grunt to get by the odd old fella towing a caravan, the GT is more than capable. At cruising speeds, it’s quiet – you can barely hear the engine noise. The seats are extremely comfortable and have just the right amount of support. The driver gets an electronically adjustable seat which has so many permutations and combinations I spent five minutes trying decide exactly which position was the most comfortable. A steering wheel as thick as a tree python feels satisfying, but the attached switches for the cruise control and stereo sometimes gets in the way.
Pressing the loud pedal results in a roar worthy of a lion. But, the GT has an unannounced 6000rpm redline, despite the rev counter displaying a tantalising 8000rpm with no redline area. The first time I reached this in sequential gearchange mode I wondered what the hell had happened as the engine cut out – I was expecting at least 7000. Leave it in auto, though, and you’ll never experience this. What you will experience is a large petrol bill. My over-exuberant right foot, combined with the ample power and torque delivery meant I had to go on a long motorway journey afterwards to get back down to a reasonable fuel consumption figure - 17 litres per 100km, or about thirteen miles per gallon.
The GT makes a statement. It has presence, but not overly so – it doesn’t turn everyone’s head, and that’s probably a good thing. The things that set it apart are the 18-inch wheels housing monster ventilated brake disks and blue callipers, the angular rear spoiler and bulging bonnet. And, underneath the bonnet the engine has an air filter the size of a bucket of chicken, but most of the rest of it is hidden beneath a huge cover.
The cabin is a bit spicier than run-of-the-mill Fords. You sit quite high with good visibility and all the controls are easy to reach. Looking through the windscreen, you at first notice the bulbous bonnet which has the same appearance from the driver’s seat as the scoop on a Subaru WRX.
There’s a feature centre console which looks great, but the plastics are a little bit cheap and whoever designed the graphics for this interface obviously liked Microsoft Windows 3.1. The screen has all your controls for the stereo, and tells you what aircon setting you’re using. It’s far easier to use than BMW’s iDrive, but then, so is an F-18 Hornet.
There are some nice touches in the cabin like the blue glowing dials, GT stitched into the seats, and the drilled pedals. But there are some try-hard ‘features’ as well. Starter buttons are fun the first time, but all they do is delay your progress as you have to use both hands to start the car. Also, the fake carbon fibre style trim is, well, fake.
FPV do a GT-P version, which has some premium upgrades like Brembo brakes, climate control, a six-CD stereo and better seats; a Pursuit model which is a ute (i.e. no weight over the rear); and there’s an extensive list of upgrades, like a 13-speaker audio system – lucky for some. Oh, and for another NZ$14,000 (~5000GBP) you can get a 400kw version (~530bhp)!
Lion tamer or automotive wildebeest?
So is this Ford really the lion tamer it purports to be? Does it ‘out-bloke’ the HSV? Well, the GT is a car for guys – especially guys with something large to tow, like an oil tanker. This is a good car. Gargantuan torque, coupled with a willing engine and those comfortable leather seats is a great formula. At NZ$75,500 it’s certainly cheaper than an equivalent 300kW (400bhp) HSV Monaro, but it doesn’t quite tame the lion. It’s more of an equal on the Serengeti.
© 2004 Darren Cottingham