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Home-grown heroes

The choice, price, equipment, security, safety and quality is better in 2004 than it has been at any time in the history of the car Down Under.

It sounds like a big call, but it's not.

Australian cars have been getting better and better for more than 15 years, and apart from such blips as the AU Falcon, improvements have delivered never-better showroom deals. Sales of the big Aussie sixes have fallen a bit, mostly because families have migrated into four-wheel-drives, but the cars themselves are world-class machines.

And with starting prices just past $30,000, or even less at the moment for a Mitsubishi Magna, they are also world-class bargains.

The real proof of the improvements is the growing number of Australian-made cars being shipped overseas.

The Toyota Camry is a huge success in the Middle East, Holden is building support for its Chevrolet-badged Commodore exports, the Monaro-turned-Pontiac GTO is finally starting to fire in the US and Mitsubishi even had a short-lived run with Magnas in the US.

It should only take time, and the next all-new models in late 2006, before the all-wheel-drive Ford Territory and Holden Adventra, and perhaps even the work-and-play Crewman Cross8, also set sail overseas.

Picking the best of the best from the local crop is tougher than ever.

The Mitsubishi Magna is a good car, and a worthy family friend, but only runs fourth in today's rankings. It beats the Toyota Avalon, which is looking more and more like a taxi-only champion, but cannot match the all-round strengths of the Camry, Commodore and Falcon.

The Ford, Holden and Toyota have all been updated this year.

Taking a broad sweep through the locals, we rate the Falcon first. It's a close call, but in most cases it's the one we'd recommend to our friends and family.

And the Falcon-based Territory is a winner. It's a Falcon with attitude and a high-rider cabin for families.

The latest Commodore is a top car, and the new Alloytec V6 does a good job in the VZ model, but it doesn't ring our bell. We love the sporty V8 SS, the Caprice and the HSV hero cars, but Holden is just a couple of points behind in the overall scoring.

The Camry? It's a classy car, and ruthlessly efficient in almost every area, but doesn't have the personality or punch of its rivals. That's why Toyota is pushing the Sportivo model, and working on a 2006 model that will have more personality than any previous Camry.

Our ratings look at the individual star cars, some of the class champions and give an overall ranking of the Australian heroes of 2004.

1. Ford Territory RWD
Lowdown: The rear-wheel-drive (RWD) is the first local to fill the gap between family car and 4WD. A Falcon wagon in disguise but more than a short-term fix.
Verdict: Heavyweight off-roader that drives like a Falcon, with a friendly turning circle and punchy six. The rear-drive TX is the best value and drops the all-paw drive most people will never need.
Plus: Light and easy to handle, with a big wagon body.
Minus: Not as capable as a LandCruiser in the bush. Comes as a six-cylinder auto only.
Rating: 18/20
Former boss Geoff Polites had to sell the project in Detroit to win $500 million to make the $38,990 car in Broadmeadows alongside the Falcon. The Territory should ensure the Falcon's survival by giving a double-edged return on future investment.

2. Holden Commodore SS
Lowdown: The best-value sports sedan on Australian roads. It has even forced HSV to rethink its Commodore performance cars, and is first choice with police pursuit drivers.
Verdict: The one to have when you want an Aussie V8 muscle car with real driving enjoyment.
Plus: Punchy 5.7-litre V8 with sporty handling, but still with Commodore comfort.
Minus: Not as refined as an XR Falcon.
Rating: 17/20
If any car sets the standard for performance motoring in Australia, it's the SS Commodore at $50,990. It is more raw than an XR Falcon, but delivers the sort of stonking punch owners expect when they dream of a hot lap at Mount Panorama.

3. Ford Falcon XT
Lowdown: The starter car in the Falcon family reflects all of the BA update work at a value price and with plenty of gear.
Verdict: Tough but surprisingly refined. Punchy 4.0-litre in-line six has the edge over the Commodore's hi-tech Alloytec V6.
Plus: Elegant styling with a rugged and well-proven mechanical package, plus good-value equipment.
Minus: A bit rugged in some areas, fuel economy not great.
Rating: 17/20
When Ford decided to dump the Forte from the AU family it knew the BA base model had to hit all targets. The XT does the job well from just $34,255 with aircon, airbags, CD sound and electric mirrors. Ford has also stopped painting Falcons yellow to discourage their use as taxis.

Ford Falcon GT 18/20
Price: From $61,000
Engine: 5.4-litre quad-cam V8
The born-again GT is very quick and very refined. The loudest thing about it are the racy stripes being chosen by most owners. But when the going gets tough, it's going and gone.

Ford Falcon 17/20
Price: From $34,255
Engine: 4.0-litre inline six
The latest BA looks surprisingly elegant over the unloved AU basics, but it's the solid mechanical package and punchy performance that gives the Falcon a narrow edge over the Commodore.

A six-speed manual gearbox is new in the BAII but the rest of the deal is more about value.

Ford Territory 17/20
Price: From $38,990
Engine: 4.0-litre inline six
Rated as a complete range, the Territory is very good but not quite great. The four-wheel-drive package costs an extra $4000 but you cannot get a V8 or manual gearbox. Still, a better choice for anyone looking at an imported 4x4.

Holden Caprice 17/20
Price: From $69,650
Engine: 3.6-litre V6
The long-wheelbase flagship has benefited from a makeover that gives it sharper styling and more driving enjoyment than the Statesman. Needs a V8 to do its best work, but the best choice for Australians who want everything in a local car.

HSV GTO Coupe 17/20
Price: From $78,690
Engine: 6-litre V8
The latest Z-Series Monaro from HSV has moved the bar on local muscle. The bigger V8 developed for the US Pontiac GTO is a welcome addition and restores bragging rights to the hot Holden shop. A bit raw but very quick.

Ford Fairlane 16/20
Price: $55,500
Engine: 4-litre inline six
Reversing the Holden deal, the Fairlane is better than the LTD. It has been tweaked for drivers but still feels a bit old and clunky compared with the Caprice.

Holden Commodore 16/20
Price: From $33,160
Engine: 3.6-litre V6
The VZ Commodore update brought the new Alloytec V6 and a considerably more refined car. But the value is not as good as a Falcon's and you have to pay extra for the power-up engine and five-speed automatic. That's enough to push it back behind the Falcon.

Toyota Camry 15/20
Price: From $32,000
Engines: 3.0-litre V6
Still operates like whitegoods on wheels, as efficient as a fridge with similar personality, and that's its greatest strength and weakness. Needs more visual punch and driving personality, which Toyota promises (once again) is coming with the new model in 2006.

Mitsubishi Magna 13/20
Price: From $33,210
Engine: 3.5-litre V6
The unloved local was done no favours by its nose job in 2003 or questions about Mitsubishi's future in 2004. Still a good car, but looking very dated. Mitsubishi is doing great deals to get cars moving, but the all-new 2005 Magna can't come too soon.

Toyota Camry Sportivo 12/20
Price: From $38,500
Engine: 3.0-litre V6
The Sportivo is proof Toyota wants a performance car, but also proves how far it is off the pace. It has a wonderful chassis and a spirited V6, but not nearly enough muscle or impact to compete with HSV of FPV.

Toyota Avalon 11/20
Price: $30,990
Engine: 3.0-litre V6
The plain Jane of the Aussie car family. Nice enough, but bland and boring. Has never delivered the promised challenge to the Falcon and Commodore and now doing very good business as a taxi. That says it all.

Mitsubishi Verada 11/20
Price: $42,950
Engine: 3.5-litre V6
The Verada highlights the shortcomings of the Magna range, despite impressive equipment and a refined cabin. It comes in only one body style, doesn't have enough style for the luxury class, and takes a heavy hit on the second-hand scene.

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