Heavy Hitters

COVER STORY Ford Falcon XR8 Sprint v HSV Clubsport R8 LSA

by SCOTT NEWMAN pics ELLEN DE WAR

The XR8 Sprint may be the best V8 Falcon ever, but can it top HSVís Clubsport LSA in a supercharged showdown?

ELCOME to the main event, the fight for the super(charged) heavyweight belt.

Our two contenders have a long history of antagonism, but this will be one of the final battles between these two bitter rivals. In the red corner is the HSV Gen-F2 Clubsport R8 LSA, a veteran of this game but fitter than ever and in the prime Ė albeit the latter stages Ė of its career.

Facing it in the blue corner is the Ford FG X Falcon XR8 Sprint, a challenger with retirement on the near horizon, however one that has undergone an extensive training regime to make one last charge for the title. Over the next six rounds these two will be put to the test but only one can be crowned champion.

TALE OF THE TAPE

Holden and Ford, as well as their respective high performance outlets, have been at each otherís throats so long that the exact win:loss record is lost in the mists of time. However, in recent years the tide has ebbed and flowed between the manufacturers as each new model generation has punched and counterpunched.

On paper this doesnít look like a very fair fight.

The Clubsport packs 400kW/671Nm from its 6.2- litre supercharged LSA V8 and asks $83,490 for the pleasure in six-speed automatic guise (manual: $80,990). Similarly specced, the $62,190 XR8 Sprint holds a substantial price advantage but also looks decisively outgunned, its 5.0-litre supercharged V8 producing Ďjustí 345kW/575Nm.

Of course, that doesnít take into account the Fordís well-documented Ďtransient overboostí function, which evens the ledger by boosting outputs to a lineball 400kW/650Nm. At 1872kg itís no lightweight, but it holds a 35kg advantage over the HSV so theoretically there should be nothing in it from a performance perspective, in a straight line at least.

ďMashing the accelerator sets the rear Continentals ablaze, but the Clubsport nails its best- ever timesĒ


ROUND 1: THE STRIP

For many the comparison starts and ends here.

Unfortunately, the numbers leave us with the befuddling conclusion that these cars are almost exactly as fast as each other, yet one is much faster than the other. While the Clubsport and the Sprint possess virtually identical engine outputs, the total amount of power is nowhere near as important as that which can actually be used.

In near-perfect testing conditions Ė cool, sunny and dry Ė the Clubsport nails its best ever times, smashing 0-100km/h in just 4.48sec and crossing the quarter mile in 12.55sec at 184.84km/h. Itís a relatively easy exercise, despite the HSV lacking any form of launch control. Simply mashing the accelerator sets the 275/35 rear Continentals ablaze, but stalling the car against the brake slightly and feeding the throttle in progressively with ESP deactivated results in the cleanest getaway. From there itís simply a matter of timing, using every last rev before selecting the next ratio, a deep exhaust blurrtt your reward for nailing it.

With a 182.35km/h trap speed, itís clear the XR8 Sprint easily has the grunt to match the Clubsport, however getting it off the line cleanly proves nigh-on impossible. Whispering behind hands, Ford insiders admit the Sprint is capable of 4.6sec to 100km/h and a 12.6sec quarter mile, but the best it manages is 5.07sec to 100km/h and 13.14sec over 400 metres.

Insufficient traction is the easily identifiable culprit; feeding the power in gently results in clean runs but slow times and any attempt to use more throttle just burns the 265/35 rear Pirellis into oblivion.

A 30-minute conversation with the Sprint engineers fails to produce any progress, however later investigations reveal the potential cause of the Sprintís troubles (see breakout on next spread). The other issue is there is a relatively small window in which to extract the best numbers as heat soak from back-to-back acceleration runs slowly but surely dulls the Miamiís edge; only slightly, but enough to rob it of 2-3km/h at the top end.

Taking the launch problems out of the equation reveals the Sprintís true potency. From 80-120km/h it matches the Clubsport at 2.5sec and on the Fordís first acceleration run Ė which results in the highest trap speed but not the best numbers Ė it charges from 80-190km/h in 9.98sec, whereas the HSV takesÖ 9.98sec. Like we said, these cars are more or less as fast as one another, but itís the Clubsport that delivers the numbers and so it takes an early lead.

CLUBSPORT: 1 FALCON: 0


ROUND 2: UNDER THE BONNET

Everyone loves a set of fast numbers, but itís the enginesí ability and character on the road that are of far greater importance and despite their similar configurations, the two have remarkably different personalities. The Falcon feels more explosive on initial throttle application; make no mistake, the HSV is no slouch, but the Fordís throttle mapping feels more aggressive, which means it really slams you back in your seat. It feels outrageously strong at low rpm Ė maximum torque is available from just 2220rpm Ė but with the crank-driven supercharger boost continues to build all the way to the 6200rpm cutout.

The final 1500rpm have to be felt to be believed.

Youíre already travelling at a fearsome rate only for it to turn feral at 5000rpm Ė if you donít grab the next gear quick smart at this point, youíll almost certainly run into the rev limiter. It sounds better from outside than in, blower whine the dominant din from behind the wheel, whereas bystanders are able to bask in the Miamiís crisp bark and plethora of crackles and burbles on the overrun.

The six-speed ZF auto has incredibly long gearing, running to 122km/h in second and 188km/h in third, but with so much power available thereís a certain thrill in experiencing the seemingly endless acceleration. It also limits the need to use the gearbox, for though itís commendably smooth during urban duties, in a performance application it feels slow and dim-witted, with the inability to rev-match on downshifts a real Achillesí heel.

The Clubsportís six-speed auto will blip the throttle going down the íbox, but still feels a long way from state of the art. Its shorter gearing Ė second stretches to 109km/h, third 168km/h Ė feels more appropriate for a performance car, but it refuses seemingly reasonable downshift requests frustratingly often.

One of its stranger habits is slurring the upshift badly if you lift off in second gear, change up and then reapply the throttle in third; that might sound like a very specific problem, but itís one that seems to rear its head reasonably often. The Clubsport LSA has the benefit of shift paddles behind the steering wheel, but using the sequential lever feels far more appropriate Ė perhaps itís the V8 Supercars connection.

So linear is the 6.2-litre LSA V8ís power curve that it doesnít initially feel that fast. As with the XR8, however, power builds as revs rise and by the time the tacho needle hits its upper reaches you really need to focus on where youíre going as youíre getting there very quickly. The noise is deeper and dirtier than the Falconís and while itíll be personal preference as to which oneís better, from the inside there is more exhaust note and less blower whine, though the choof as the bi-modal exhaust opens its valves isnít popular in the MOTOR office.

While different in character, both these engines produce such massive amounts of performance that splitting them seems churlish. A word of warning, however, this pace comes at a price. Our 300km road section, combining open-road touring and backto- back cornering assessment, proves thirsty work, the XR8 drinking 17.38L/100km and the Clubsport 18.08L/100km.

CLUBSPORT: 1.5 FALCON: 0.5

Testerís notes: When rubberís the weakest link

LETíS BE blunt, Ford was disappointed with our numbers and so was I. The Sprint is arguably the most important car MOTOR will performance test all year and I was only too aware that many people were waiting to see what this final Falcon could manage on the strip.

As mentioned in the copy, the conditions were perfect and both cars were run at the manufacturerís recommended tyre pressures and with around a quarter-tank of fuel. Having nailed impressive numbers in the HSV I fully expected to manage similar figures in the Ford, particularly with a number of outlets claiming to have managed mid-four-second 0-100km/h runs at the launch.

Unfortunately, any attempt to use a decent amount of throttle in first resulted in rampant wheelspin. Having exhausted every trick in my own book, I called David Burn and Justin Capicchiano, the engineers in charge of the Sprint program, and subsequently exhausted their bag of tricks with no improvement.

A fluke run might have netted a tenth of a second improvement, but on that day there was no way the Sprint wa going to manage a 4.6sec run to 100km/h. With the car returned s to s to Ford the suspicion is that while the tyres still had decent tread left, they were past their best in terms of being able to deliver ultimate acceleration.

Thereís no doubt the Sprint has the ability to deliver on its claims Ė after all, weíve run 4.8/12.8 in a regular XR8 launching in second gear Ė so hopefully weíll be able to try again soon in similar conditions on fresh rubber. Ė SN

ďThe Sprint feels more explosive, it really slams you back in your seat. The fi nal 1500rpm have to be felt to be believedĒ

ďTraditionally, one of the biggest strengths of the Aussie performance sedan has been its touring abilityĒ

ROUND 3: ON THE ROAD

Traditionally, one of the biggest strengths of the Aussie performance sedan has been its touring ability.

From Ford XR Falcon GT to HSV W427 and almost everything in between, few cars at any price point have been able to haul passengers and luggage in relative comfort at high speed over long distances.

One of the most disappointing aspects of the FG X XR8 is its fidgety, unsettled ride, which doesnít take long to become a major irritation on a long drive.

Thankfully, the Sprint is a marked improvement. A complete suspension rethink, necessary due to the switch to Pirelli P Zero tyres, led to softer spring rates but much firmer rebound damping and the result is a ride that is firm but with enough compliance not to become wearing. The primary ride over larger bumps and lumps is nicely controlled and the secondary ride filters out many of the small road imperfections that make their way through to the driver in a regular XR8.

Itís not perfect, but it is a good compromise.

The Clubsport is also firm, with a focus on body control over ride comfort, which works well at higher speeds but can be a little abrupt over sharp bumps at low speed. Like the Falcon, itís a reasonable compromise but HSVís Magnetic Ride Control would be a welcome addition for the ability to soften the dampers on a bumpy road. For now, the trick suspension remains the preserve of the Senator and GTS.

One area the Clubsport does display an advantage is its refinement. Wind and road noise is well managed in both cars, but the chink in the Falconís armour is what appears to be insufficient underbody sound deadening. Any loose surface encounter, for instance roadworks or pulling onto the side of the road, sprays gravel into the arches with a racket that sounds like a hailstorm on a tin roof. However, itís a relatively small bugbear, and one thatís offset by the XR8ís slightly superior ride, though weíre talking very small margins here. Itís another split decision, and at the halfway point the Ford is hanging on to the HSV.

CLUBSPORT: 2 FALCON: 1

ROUND 4: IN THE BENDS

This is where the roads, and this comparison, get interesting. For Gen-F2, HSV focused on stuffing a stable-full of horsepower under the Clubsportís bonnet, while Ford took the opposite approach with the Sprint by upgrading the chassis in an attempt to harness the grunt it already had. Our test route is a six-kilometre section of the Euroa-Mansfield which fortuitously contains almost every conceivable type of corner, from tight second-gear hairpins to flowing sweepers interspersed with various bumps, crests and tricky braking zones.

Itís a stern test of any chassis, let alone one tasked with controlling nearly two tonnes and 400kW, but the Clubsport handles it with aplomb. At 1907kg this is a heavy car but while it doesnít necessarily shrink around you, it can be driven extremely hard with confidence, as at no point does it feel like itís going to be anything untoward Ė only in quick direction changes does the weight have to be taken into account. The mass does take its toll on the rubber, though, the Continental ContiSportContact 5Ps providing excellent grip but disappearing at a fearsome rate under continued punishment.

Front end grip is the fuse in the handling circuit,

with gentle understeer the prevailing characteristic at the limit, so itís important to shed enough speed before turn in, a process made easier by hugely powerful brakes. HSV stoppers are among the worldís best and the combination of large ventilated discs and four-piston calipers at both ends hauls this huge car up from 100km/h in just 33.9m while displaying an impressive resistance to fade.

The steering could be a little sharper off-centre, but itís well-weighted and accurate, with enough communication to take the guesswork out of estimating cornering speeds. Traction is strong, but equally the throttle can be used to help steer the car or hang the tail sideways if you are so inclined.

That might sound like high-risk behaviour, but HSVís Performance ESP calibration is superb, lenient enough to allow almost a half-turn of opposite lock yet subtle in its interventions when it does feel the need to straighten the ship.

Itís arguably the Clubsportís biggest advantage over the Sprint, as it allows it to be driven hard with a safety net in place, even in tricky conditions. Despite using the latest Bosch 9.0 ESP system, the Falconís electronics are way too conservative for performance driving. Itís quite subtle in its interventions and allows relatively high cornering speeds, but as soon as you go anywhere near the throttle it strangles the car. Itís the automotive equivalent of trying to run with your shoelaces tied together and freeing the Falcon from its electronic shackles illustrates how much itís being held back.

The XR8 chassis underwent a substantial overhaul for the Sprint program, including bigger brakes (which reduce its stopping distance from 100km/h to just 35.9m), better tyres and an intense focus on improving body control and itís worked wonders. Its biggest dynamic flaw is the steering; itís quite sharp off-centre, which takes some acclimatisation, but with lock applied itís light and vague and offers little sensation on what the front end is up to.

Crucially, though, thereís now enough grip and composure that you can commit to corners and know the car will stick. Front end grip has improved markedly and feels to allow more mid-corner speed than the HSV, though whether thatís actually the case will remain unclear until we get them both on a track and analyse the data. Regardless, itís a confidenceinspiring setup and the Sprint can be driven harder and faster than any Falcon in recent memory and is more enjoyable to boot.

Lifted from the old FPV GT P, the brakes are slightly softer in feel than the Clubsportís but equally effective and traction is strong, though a stab of throttle midcorner will soon have the rear Pirellis smearing themselves across the road. However, while the Ford runs it close, the HSV is still marginally the more polished package. It could do with a bit more frontend bite, but its greater communication, particularly through the steering, makes it easier to approach its limits with confidence.

CLUBSPORT: 3 FALCON: 1

ďThe Falcon now has enough grip and composure that you can commit to corners and know the car will stickĒ


ďThe Sprint is a fitting farewell to the Falcon. Owners have bought something much more than a badge exerciseĒ

ROUND 5: INSIDE AND OUT

Styling is so subjective that no points will be awarded here. For instance, some commentators have described the FG X look as like something thatís emerged from the ocean depths, however personally I think Fordís designers have done a solid job of incorporating the corporate nose and freshening a shape that dates back to 2008.

The Sprint treatment is relatively subtle, yet strong enough with the black wheels, mirrors and roof for the Ford faithful to be able to spot it from the next suburb.

With its bonnet vents and bodykit, the Clubsport has a more aggressive exterior package and again, some will love it and others will hate it. For mine the new bodykit, especially the side skirts, and the subtle rear spoiler strike a good balance between differentiating it from the basic Commodore shape without dissolving into caricature.

Points can be awarded, however, for the interiors.

The inside of the Clubsport is overwhelmingly grey and the seats lack lateral support in hard cornering, though the driving position is spot-on. The reverse is true of the Falcon, its seats more supportive but mounted far too high, the driver perched like a child in a high chair. Yes, weíve said it many times before, but that doesnít make it any less true.

But you know what, while weíve criticised the Falcon interior in the past, in this package at this price point itís much less of an issue. If it was eighty grand and positioned as a quasi-luxury product it would fall short, but at a tick over $60K itís functional and has all the toys you could reasonably expect.

CLUBSPORT: 3.5 FALCON: 1.5

ROUND 6: DOLLARS & SENSE

Value is the Falconís trump card. Yes, it struggled on the strip but from an experiential standpoint, it offers a package every bit as potent as the Clubsport for $20,000 less. With equal drivers on a twisty road or racetrack, thereís unlikely to be much more than a handful of metres between them, which means the Sprint offers enormous bang for your buck.

It lacks the 21st century toys of the HSV, notably active safety equipment like blind-spot monitoring, lane-assist and emergency braking, but traditional muscle car buyers arenít likely to notice their absence and everything they will use, stuff like sat-nav, Bluetooth audio and smartphone app support, is present and correct.

Condense each car down to its mechanicals, the bits MOTOR readers actually care about, and theyíre eerily similar, itís just that the Ford is 75 per cent the price of the HSV. Of course, this is on the assumption that you can find a dealer that has a Sprint in stock and is willing to part with it at something close to retail price.

But based on that assumption, the Falcon takes the final round.

CLUBSPORT: 3.5 FALCON: 2.5

THE VERDICT

The scores tell the story: the HSV wins, if only by the slimmest of margins. A half-point swing in any of the six rounds wouldíve led to a tie. The Clubsport LSA wins because it is the better car; it puts its power down more effectively, inspires more confidence in the driver and is the more competitive contemporary package. Itís an excellent example of the modern-day muscle car, but its price tag reflects this.

Ford has done a great job in making the Sprint a fitting farewell to the Falcon. It certainly doesnít leave the Clubsport bruised or bloodied in any area, but that itís now close enough to compete is a big achievement.

A regular XR8 would be mauled by the HSV. Sprint owners have bought something much more than a badge exercise; letís just hope they donít tuck them away in sheds, as none of the improvements will be noticeable in there.

Thereís no fairytale win for the XR8 in its final bout, but neither is it a knockout, and while the HSV wins, both contenders deserve to leave the arena carried on the shoulders of others. M