After six wickets fell for 326 on the opening day, eight tumbled for 239 on day two as the bounce and cracks on the pitch made it difficult for the batsmen.
Perth: Ian Bell (9) and Ben Stokes (14) defied the Australian bowling attack for the last hour after England lost two key wickets late on Saturday, lifting the total to 180 for 4 at the end of a stifling second day in the third Ashes Test.
Skipper Alastair Cook (72) and Kevin Pietersen (19) dug in during a sustained period of pressure from the Australian bowlers to get the total to 136 for 2 but were both out within 10 runs as England's first innings wobbled in pursuit of Australia's 385.
After six wickets fell for 326 on the opening day, eight tumbled for 239 - including the last four Australian wickets in the morning session - as the bounce and cracks on the pitch and temperatures topping 40 Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) made it difficult for the batsmen.
With Australia desperate to reclaim the Ashes in Perth and England needing at least a draw to prolong their defence, the match at the WACA was delicately poised with three days remaining.
Cook played a captain's knock in his 100th Test, putting on 85 runs with Michael Carberry (43) - the best opening stand of the series - and then continuing with Pietersen, but the disciplined line and length of the pacemen curtailed the run-rate and prompted him to lash out at the introduction of spin and he cut Nathan Lyon to David Warner at point.
Pietersen lost patience after an uncharacteristically cautious start, taking 15 balls to get off the mark and 44 before hitting his first boundary. After becoming just the fifth England batsman to pass 8,000 career Test runs, he impulsively flat-batted a short ball from Peter Siddle to mid-on and Mitchell Johnson took a stunning, leaping catch to complete the dismissal.
It was the 10th time Siddle has taken Pietersen's wicket in Test cricket.
England started positively, with the openers having three early reprieves but seeming to get on top of the Australian bowlers before Ryan Harris bowled Carberry.
England added five to the total before Joe Root (4) was given out caught behind in a contentious DRS review.
Umpire Marais Erasmus raised the finger when Australia appealed for a catch off Shane Watson's bowling but England challenged it. The TV umpire's review - based on a slight movement on the snicko technology - had no evidence to overturn the decision.
It was just one more controversial outcome from a system that was widely criticized during the last Ashes series in England.
England's bowlers had earlier done well to take the last four Australian wickets for 59 runs.
Stuart Broad had Johnson (39) caught behind without any addition to the overnight total before Jimmy Anderson snared two wickets, having Steve Smith (111) caught behind off a very feint inside edge after a DRS referral and Harris (12) caught in the gully.
Last-wicket pair Siddle (21) and Lyon (17 not out) added 31 as the tail wagged in scorching heat in Perth.
Cracks started opening up in the baking conditions at Perth, and the ball started to move off the seam making it more awkward for the batsmen.
Australia have batted first and scored big wins in the first two Tests and is aiming to reclaim the Ashes with a third straight victory at the WACA, where England hasn't tasted victory since 1978.