words - Cliff Chambers
Australians love their utes and Ford's Falcon spent 30 years at the top of the tree.
From 1984 when Holden discontinued its WB commercial range, Ford’s Falcon ute asserted a dominance that only recently has been overcome by the more sophisticated and modern-looking VE Commodore.

Falcon utes built during its 30 years of dominance were solid (albeit unexciting), load-carriers with durability that rarely let their devotees down. The arrival in 2002 of the improved BA range brought more power and features at attractive prices. Ford then added a quasi offroad (but still RWD) version that took its cab/chassis models into regions previously only accessible by all-wheel drive.

The BA appeared in October 2002 with a modernised and less controversial shape than the AU series it replaced. Extensive improvements were made to the steering and suspension and a twin-camshaft, 24-valve 4.0-litre engine boosted power to a very useful 182kW.

First up to tempt commercial buyers was the XL cab/chassis. With manual transmission it cost $25,590, to which a basic tray added just $1220. Unless utes were specified with space for three passengers, electric seat adjustment was among the standard equipment.

Styleside BA XLs began at $26,190 and four-speed automatic transmission with a Sport-Shift slot added $920. Airconditioning, which would seem pretty much essential in a vehicle that doubles as a workplace, cost a hefty $2250 and LPG a further $1100. An XLS Styleside with alloy wheels and more advanced sound system was almost $30,000.

BAs also introduced the Integrated Command Centre console with a screen display for the time, trip computer, music and climate-control information.

In June 2003 Ford re-introduced the XL SE model that had been missing since discontinuation of the AU range. With aircon and alloy wheels it cost less than $27,000. The SE was accompanied by a Tradesman version of the XL cab/chassis – also with 16-inch alloys and an alloy tray but no integrated airconditioning until 2006 when the BF model arrived.

In late 2003 Ford quite literally lifted the BA ute’s game by launching the RTV. With 80mm of extra clearance under the rear axle and riding on chunky 16-inch tyres, the ‘Rugged Terrain Vehicle’ looked as if it should be packing a transfer case and front diff. But 4WD wasn’t even optional, instead Ford added a switchable differential-lock that equalised drive to both rear wheels and automatically disengaged at over 70km/h.

RTVs were built with standard bodywork or as a cab-chassis with optional alloy tray. Prices began at $30,615 for the unbodied version and ran to more than $37,000 for a V8 Styleside. Antilock brakes were standard to RTVs and all utes with a V8 engine.

A 4.0-litre LPG engine was offered across the BA and BF model ranges and developed 156kW against the petrol version’s 182kW. Acceleration took around 15 per cent longer than in a petrol ute but long-distance drivers could save over 30 per cent on total cost of fuel. This engine in an XL Cab/chassis cost $26,990 and $32,105 in an RTV.

BA II models released in 2004 came with minor styling changes, improvements to the automatic transmission and automatic headlight activation. Prices generally rose by just $200.

The BF range launched in September 2005 lasted barely a year before upgraded into the BF II. Styling changes included a mildly-reshaped bumper but inside there were more substantial improvements including new seat fabrics, a redesigned centre console and door hardware.

Six-cylinder engines which met stricter emission rules were also more powerful; generating 190kW on petrol and with slightly improved torque. XR6 and XR8 utes will be reviewed in a separate Guide.

Nothing short of some concrete lashed to the tray will make utility handling resemble that of a well-sorted sedan. Commercial vehicle suspensions are by nature compromised in order to provide reasonable handling when unladen and resistance to bottoming and steering lightness when laden.

Ford worked hard on improving the BA range’s ride and steering response and ute buyers reaped the benefits. Revising the spring rates and fitting 36mm diameter shock absorbers were a couple of changes designed to minimise the jumps and jolts generated by Ford’s ancient live-axle rear end. Better tyres and the availability of larger-diameter wheels helped as well.

Brakes, unless the $3000 Premium package was specified, suffer when carrying a heavy load or towing. Despite antilock brakes and a passenger air-bag being optional for the majority of the range, Ford utes still managed to achieve a Four Star safety rating.  

Unless you choose an RTV, lack of ground clearance can cause grief. Even the most cautious approach to speed humps can cause exhaust system grinding and climbing a tall gutter without crunching a bumper is near-impossible.  

Despite basic weights in the region of 1600kg, six-cylinder petrol utes offered generous performance. This was especially obvious from 70-110km/h where the engine characteristics and automatic transmission combine extremely well. Except on the RTV with its diff lock, decent traction required the optional limited-slip differential and utes without one will spin wheels on wet or dry surfaces without great provocation.

Fuel consumption using 91 Octane ULP is said to average a little over 10L/100km but load weight and increased pace will push that beyond 16L/100km.

Seat travel was extended at the BA II revamp and the adjustable steering column on utes without a column gear-shift should ensure comfort for almost everyone. Space behind the seats will accommodate a couple of medium-sized suitcases.

Fitting three in the front is possible with the optional centre seat but this brings with it a host of compromises. Gone for a start is the useful console bin and in place of the Sport-Shift you go back to grandad’s day and a column lever.

The trim materials are tough, the air-vents decently-sized and instruments easily to read if you can handle the eerie green lighting. Controls for the radio and cruise control, where specified, are mounted on the steering wheel.

>> RTV utes have plenty of clearance compared to standard models and can encourage owners to push their limits. Check that the fibreglass shield protecting the engine and transmission is still firmly attached and also for damage to unprotected areas like sills, the exhaust system and rear suspension. Chassis flexing can damage or loosen tray attachments too.

>> Bed-liners protect the trays on ‘styleside’ versions but can split or be punctured, allowing water to collect underneath and promote rust.

>> Interior trim quality is a weak point, so expect creaks and rattles on high-kilometre utes. The steering wheel rim can deteriorate with age and sun exposure.

>> BA models suffered endemic brake disc issues prompting many warranty claims to machine or replace warped discs. Some owners have replaced the Ford brakes with better-quality rotors. Older cars might have brakes machined past their safe thickness. Pulsing through the pedal, heavily scored or discoloured rotors indicate a problem.

>> Start-up rattles mean oil isn’t getting to the valve lifters and camshafts, hastening wear. Ensure servicing is up to date and use only the recommended oil grade.

>> Early cars suffered bonnet release problems that required a latch redesign but should all by now have been fixed.

>> Transmission cooler failure caused transmissions to ingest shards of metal and need replacement. Some utes will have aftermarket external coolers to avoid the problem. Checking transmission oil level and condition is difficult as the four-speed does not have a dipstick. Correct grade fluid must be used to avoid damage.

?Design & Function:15/20
Value for Money:16/20?
Wow Factor:14/20

ALSO CONSIDER: ?Holden Commodore S, ?Toyota Hilux SR 4.0, ?Nissan Navara D40

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Published : Wednesday, 30 May 2012

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