We're always on the lookout for cars. Cars that we can borrow from importers, cars that we can scam from dealers, press cars that we get from manufacturers. Even hire cars - all are grist for the AutoSpeed mill.
So when I was recently flying back home after a Melbourne story-gathering trip, and when arranging personal transport home from the airport was going to be messy, I figured I'd hire a car, keep it for perhaps three or four days, and write an AutoSpeed new car test about it.
At Coolangatta airport I fronted the hire car counters, looking - as I said to the hire car company staff - for something "a bit different". After all, we've already driven the Magna, Lancer, Laser, Tarago, Commodore, Mazda MX5, Falcon, Vienta - and most of the others on offer. And after lucking out on a Beetle and Megane - Coolangatta's a very small airport and they keep only the most common cars in the hire row - I reached the Thrifty man.
After working through a few options, he offered a Ford Fairlane Ghia - and I jumped at the opportunity. We hadn't driven the big luxury Ford, and it was only in the last week or so that I'd received an email from someone asking why I hadn't considered buying a Fairlane instead of the Lexus LS400 that I had actually acquired as my personal car.
The rental dollars weren't too high, and the Fairlane - while a fair way through its model cycle - is current and being sold for $50,350 plus ORC.
I try my damnest to approach all cars with an open mind, but a few things did run through it as I stood next to the pale metallic gold/green Fairlane, pressing the remote unlock button on the key. Firstly, over the last week in Melbourne I'd been driving a sequential twin turbo VVTi Supra, an R32 GTS4 Skyline, a modified six cylinder Falcon, and a VVTi twin turbo Soarer. Secondly, about four weeks before, I'd spent three days driving a current AU Falcon.
So as I drove off down the Pacific Motorway, I immediately had a rush of AU Falcon cues - the engine note, many of the plastic interior appointments, the way the car felt on the road. And almost as quickly I had to banish to a deep part of my subconsciousness the sheer quality feel of that late model Soarer...
But all of that is par for the course, as is swinging the steering wheel back and forth to make an initial assessment of steering linearity and response, seeing how the trans downshifts on part throttle, leaving the sound system off to allow for the separate assessment of wind and road and transmission noises - amongst a host of other car-testing mental notes.
In fact, I was just drifting along at the speed limit when I reached across to the (distant) trip computer to zero the average fuel consumption reading.
Suddenly, without any warning - and on this generally smooth freeway - the rear jumped sideways.
"Shit!" I bellowed into the empty cabin. "What was that!?"
I peered into the rear vision mirror and noticed that near the lane line, just where the right-hand wheels of the car would have passed, there was a series of patched bitumen corrugations. But - so what?
Half convinced that I'd inadvertently swung on some steering lock as my attention had been on the trip computer, I continued on my way... though a little warily now.
This car might bite.
As you'll all be aware, in our new car tests we tell it like we see and feel and find it. So if the Fairlane did strange things, well, best to find out all about them and report to you just what we'd discovered. After all, the Kia Rio was one car that we found cornered differently through right- and left-hand corners, and the Mercedes E320 wasn't nearly as stable at high speed as you'd have thought it should be - nothing is impossible, whatever the prestige or otherwise of the car.
So I ignored the trip computer and the fussiness of the instrument markings and the engine NVH - and I concentrated just on feeling what the car was doing on the road.
And it didn't do anything, much.
Just drove along, the car as quiet in cruise as the Falcon had been (though oddly enough, no quieter), the 4-litre engine slurping through the fuel at a rate that soon had the average sitting near 14 litres/100 km in this gentle freeway pedal. I took a few detours on the way home, driving through some urban and suburban areas, tossing the big car around on the smooth bitumen roundabouts, seeing if the back would suddenly become wayward in the manner that had so disconcerted me. The rear suspension seemed fine - in fact, instead the Fairlane understeered a heap in these tight, slow conditions.
But then I got to the hard bit. The road from the freeway to my home is a tough, tough section of country bitumen. It dips and weaves and dives, crossing river fords (three), climbing very steep hills (two), and winding its way around numerous corners with advisories from 40 km/h upwards. There are rough bits and smooth bits and flowing bits and tight bits. It is challenging and demanding and dangerous.
And here the Fairlane just frightened the hell out of me.
On any corners with sharp, tightly-spaced corrugations or patches, the back-end danced around like it was out of control. At speeds well under those with which I normally drive the road, the car was dangerous. The back end movement was so severe that at times I had to whip on steering correction as the rear wheels happily leapt sideways.... Usually the lateral movement stopped when the tyres again met a smooth surface, but it was all as hairy as hell.
Just what was going on? Had Ford managed to make the double wishbone arse-end of this luxury car behave worse than a leaf-sprung solid axle? It sure felt like it...
So I nursed the car along, travelling so slowly that through the 'big dipper' (the corner that I have mentioned in past stories as being an awesome suspension test) I trundled through at just 80 km/h. It was all I dared do. But in fact, over the large mid-corner bumps in this corner, the Fairlane stuck to its line quite well - it seemed that it was only the sharp pattery bits that sent it into deranged behaviour.
When I got home I examined the car very carefully. I checked tyre pressures, used a long straight edge to assess rear toe, inspected the rear suspension from beneath the car, and bounced every corner. The car was only 4 months old and had just 7000km on it. And except for the right-hand rear damper being just a touch softer than the left-rear damper, all seemed fine. (Like, the rear-left bounced about 2.5 times after being released, and the rear-right about 3 times... that's all the difference was.)
It's sometimes my road test style to write an initial skeletal story based on first impressions, then drive and drive the car, going back through the written structure to flesh it out - filling in the gaps and re-assessing all of those initial ideas.
That's why sometimes you'll read lines like, "At first acquaintance the seats feel too hard, but time proves them to be very comfortable" - stuff like that.
So that night I started to write the story:
Unlike the base Forte model Falcon which we drove a few weeks ago (and, for those who need reminding, thought was quite a competent car for its money - especially secondhand) the Fairlane has sophisticated double wishbone rear suspension. It is of course an independent design, and also one that should be markedly superior to Holden's dated semi-trailing-rear-arm-plus-a-link format.
But we can say categorically that the Fairlane that we drove had cornering behaviour that in some situations was dangerously bad.
Rather like the Falcon, the suspension has been set up so that it handles large amplitude bumps with aplomb. While more softly damped than the Falcon - as of course is quite appropriate for a luxury spec car - it still rides quite well over the really big bumps. Even big mid-corner bumps are no real problem - but small, sharp corrugations are not coped with nearly as well.
In, fact, that is kinda the understatement of the year...
When cornering at normal speeds over country road corrugations, the rear end of the car dances around like you simply wouldn't believe. Even in a straight line the back can get out of shape as it goes a-pattering, while when cornering over difficult roads, the back moves around enough to require steering correction... Scary stuff, especially when the speeds at which this appalling behaviour occurred are really quite low.
And at high speeds? We didn't dare go through the same corners fast ...
One of the Fairlane's behaviours that had convinced me that there wasn't anything actually mechanically wrong with the rear end - besides, apparently, the design or suspension tune - was that the rear end pattering happened equally in both left- and right-hand corners. But while writing the skeleton, the thought had kept re-occurring - I must be absolutely certain that the behaviour was indeed symmetrical. When driving the car that first day I'd certainly got the feeling that it was, but I still needed to very carefully put it to the test. Cos if the behaviour happened more one way than the other, well, almost certainly something was wrong on one side... a faulty damper, for example.
The next day I drove out the gate with the intention of finding out.
And, after an hour of driving back and forth over the same stretches of bumpy corners, it was clear. The rear end danced around only in left-hand corners. Something was wrong - almost certainly not in the design of the car, but with this particular example.
Again and again I looked and bounced and inspected, even comparing the tread of the rear tyres - when a damper is defective, one tyre will usually wear faster than the other positioned at the same end of the car. But I found nothing that would give an explanation - and in fact the pristine tyre shoulders showed that the car had never even been driven hard. And even if one damper was soft, why did the back move sideways when a bump was hit - even when travelling in a straight line?
Too many questions... Why a car only 4 months old behaved like this, I don't know. Why a normal suspension inspection showed no problem but the car was still dangerous on the wrong sort of roads - I don't know that either. Whether other near-new Fairlanes also behave like this - another thing I don't know. Was the rear suspension softness contributing to the understeer? - don't know that either.
But I did know that we couldn't run a new car test story using this car as the example.
So I took it back early...