The XR8 boasts the best of Ford's changes, writes JONATHAN HAWLEY. Blink and you'll miss it. Ford's facelift of its BA Falcon is so subtle that if it wasn't for the badge on the back proclaiming the updates of late last year make this the "MkII" model, you'd be forgiven for thinking the company's design and engineering staff had spent 2004 at the beach. Perhaps it was because the original BA was such a major job itself, or Ford staff were busy working on the Territory wagon. Whatever the reason, only a dedicated car perv would be able to spot the latest Falcon update from the outside. Equipment levels have been massaged across the range with cruise control and automatic headlamps fitted as standard on all Falcons, and a couple of models have had their wheels restyled. On the whole, there are precious few mechanical upgrades, with one particular exception: a six-speed manual gearbox has been introduced, but only to the sportier XR6 Turbo and V8-powered XR8 models. In fact, the XR8 is the most-changed Falcon model, thanks to the new manual transmission (auto models receive the same old four-speed) and the suspension has been tweaked to improve steering response and handling. The stereo has also been upgraded, 18-inch wheels are standard equipment, new colours have been introduced and there are a few minor interior changes to lighting and trim. The price has also gone up slightly, with both the manual and automatic XR8 now costing $51,275 ($38,919.88 USD). That's only a couple of hundred dollars more than the Commodore SS, and like the Holden, the XR8 represents pretty good buying if the emphasis is on performance rather than overt luxury. The XR8 comes with the basics of air-conditioning, power windows and dual front airbags, but if you want niceties such as side airbags, leather trim or a six-stack CD changer, you have to delve into the options list. Most customers are presumably more interested in what's happening under the bonnet, to which the almost unseemly bulge in the engine cover gives a clue. It is there to accommodate the 5.4-litre engine and its twin-cam heads that distinguish it from the single-cam V8 in lesser Falcons. The powerplant is the same as before, but with 260 kW (350hp) of power and 500 Nm (370ft-lbs) of torque there's an argument to say it didn't need beefing up. The new manual gearbox alters the engine's behaviour, however, and exclusively for the better. This is the same six-speed Holden uses with its V8 models, although Ford has chosen different gear ratios that in general are more tightly grouped for more spontaneous acceleration. The diff ratio is also lower than the previous XR8 to achieve the same effect. There's certainly an invigorating amount of power, with the XR8's engine delivering plenty of clean, hard torque low in the rev range, but still building to a crescendo closer to the rather low 6000 rpm cut-out. The lower first gear in the manual gearbox gives better punch from a standing start, but it is when on the move that the reason for the change to a six-speed becomes more apparent. In third or fourth there's a marvellous elasticity to the acceleration, and combining the engine's power with a sensibly low fifth gear means it can be utilised from speeds as low as 60 km/h (37mph). Sixth isn't just a flat-plains cruising ratio, either; it has the engine ticking over at just under 2000 rpm at 100 km/h (62mph), leaving enough urge for relaxed overtaking if the conditions permit. Ford claims a slight improvement in fuel consumption over the five-speed XR8, but it still uses enough to keep a smile on the face of most OPEC chiefs. Don't expect much better than 16 L/100 km (15mpg) around town, although economy improves in highway cruising. Less pleasing is the small 68-litre (18g)fuel tank, which is quickly drained. Suspension changes have focused on stiffer springs at the front and rear, but it takes someone very familiar with the ride and handling characteristics of the old XR8 to pick much difference. The inside story on the XR8 is much the same as for the original BA, apart from a new gear knob. The seating positing is a little awkward for the driver, being quite high, with the wheel tilted a little forward, and minor switchgear well hidden behind it. But the amount of cabin width gives the driver and front-seat passenger plenty of elbow space, the seats have grip and comfort, and anyone relegated to the rear has adequate leg room and also ample width. The big boot can be extended via a folding rear seat, but the 15-inch spare wheel under the depression in the boot's floor is for temporary use only. The BA XR8 has always been a pleasant blend of velvet-glove comfort and refinement, backed by the iron fist of a thumping V8. Those few drivers who opt for the manual will find the new six-speed is an intelligent improvement, honing the car's performance capabilities without compromising the XR8's driveability. The improvement is incremental, but far more visible than what you see on the outside of the BA MkII. Nuts 'n' bolts How much: $51,275 ($38,919.88 USD) (man/auto) plus options and on-roads. Insurance: Premium $1045 ($793.199 USD) (RACV, 40-year-old rating-one male, medium-risk suburb, $450 excess). Warranty: Three years/100,000 km. Engine: 5.4-litre, DOHC, 32-valve V8, 260 kW (350hp) at 5250 rpm and 500 Nm (370ft-lbs) at 4250 rpm. Transmissions: Six-speed manual or four-speed auto. Rear-wheel-drive. Steering: Rack and pinion, 2.7 turns lock-to-lock. Turning circle 11.0 m. Brakes: Ventilated discs front, discs rear. ABS. Suspension: Front: Independent by double wishbones with coil springs and stabiliser bar. Rear: Independent by multi-links with coil springs and stabiliser bar. Wheels/tyres: 8.0 x 18-inch alloy wheels, tyres 245/40. Space-saver spare. How heavy? 1797 kg (3,961 lb) (manual). How thirsty? 14.5 L/100 km (16mpg) average. ULP, 68-litre (18g) tank. Equipment: Driver airbag, CD player, Cruise control, Remote locking, Power windows, Air-conditioning. ------ Competitors Holden Commodore SS $50,990 ($38,703.56 USD) 4 stars The XR8's natural opposition has a free-revving and gutsy V8. Features the same gearbox but with taller ratios that help economy, not performance. Fast and furious, even fun. Subaru Impreza WRX $42,490 ($32,251.70 USD) 4 stars A smaller sedan and much cheaper, but not embarrassed for performance or attitude. Turbo engine has the grunt, 4WD looks after grip. Less roomy but more nimble than V8s.