An all-new stunner from Dearborn. by Ray Thursby
A decade ago, the Ford Taurus was a controversial car and a big gamble for its builder. Its aerodynamic exterior was a total departure from anything else being built in Detroit at the time.
By today's standards, that same shape looks conservative and familiar. And so once again, Ford is taking a big chance in a high-stakes game with the 1996 Taurus, which is generating every bit as much controversy as its 1986 forebearer. Though similar in concept and packaging to other current mid-size sedans, it has once again been sent down a new and radical styling path. Will competitors -- and customers -- follow once again?
Whatever the outcome, Ford gets high marks for taking design risks in an arena filled with ho-hum shapes that are frequently hard to tell apart.
Calling the Taurus all new is no overstatement. It's a car of ovals and ellipses, with nary a straight line or flat panel to be seen anywhere. From the oval air intake (flanked by elliptical headlamps) to the rounded full-width taillamps, the Taurus is unlikely to be mistaken for any of its competitors, and the same can be said for its fraternal twin, the Sable.
At a distance, the latest Taurus doesn't appear to be as large as the previous generation, yet it is over five inches longer and two inches wider.
Overall, the design is effective, and certain elements -- the deeply concave side panels among them -- are quite attractive. So is the virtual absence of bright exterior trim. But there are a few areas where the design envelope may have been pushed too far, particularly in the station wagon, which seems to fall short of the graceful execution of the original. But again, time and exposure will probably affect these perceptions.
It's worth noting that the Sable, which shares chassis, powertrain, interior and a number of exterior panels with the Taurus, has a more conventional look aft of the rear doors, at least in sedan form. The Sable has lost its trademark full-width front light bar this year, but is differentiated up front from the Taurus by bright trim surrounding the front air intake.
Both Taurus and Sable are available in four-door sedan and station wagon versions. Base models are called GL (Ford) and GS (Mercury); the upscale entries are LX and LS respectively. Responding to sluggish sales, Ford is also adding a value-oriented G model, with a $17,995 base price that's $650 lower than the regular GL.
Another Taurus-only offering is the SHO high-performance sedan, just rolling into showrooms this spring with an all-new V-8 engine under the hood. At press time, SHO pricing had not yet been announced.
The Inside Story
Once you've slipped through the generously sized doors, the Taurus seems much more conventional. Plenty of space has been provided in an environment that has been laid out for maximum comfort and convenience. A front bench seat is installed in basic G and GL models, but the upscale bucket seats in our LX test car were much more comfortable.
There's ample luggage space as well, reached through a deck lid that is awkwardly shaped but compensates to some degree by having a lower liftover height than found on previous versions.
The GL's front seat is divided by a nifty center section that can be used as a seatback, armrest or center console depending on the way it's positioned. Within are cupholders (graduated in size and elevation to accommodate a variety of beverage container sizes), a gimballed ashtray that won't spill regardless of position, and a storage cubby. This is a strikingly clever piece of design that's certain to provoke imitations as the age of cupholders advances.
One ovoid shape does appear in the interior. It's the panel carrying climate and sound system controls. Knobs and pushbuttons have been laid out in logical sequence, and the Taurus driver will quickly learn to locate them by feel alone, a recent -- and welcome -- design innovation called tactile differentiation within the industry. One downside of the control pod is that it doesn't lend itself to aftermarket audio installations, and a CD player is absent from the option list.
Other nice details within the cabin are shared with other Fords. The soft-touch control switches are especially nice, as is the instrument cluster which features simple, easy to read dials.
Drawbacks? The biggest is the illusion that the Taurus interior is less spacious than it is, a combination of cowl and beltline height and the sweeping shapes of the door panels, which appear to intrude into passenger space, but do not.
All versions of Taurus and Sable are comprehensively equipped with standard air conditioning, an AM/FM radio, tilt steering column and power windows and mirrors. LX/LS models add a better six-speaker AM/FM/cassette system, power locks and seats, and a host of small but much-appreciated convenience features, including map lights and retractable front and rear grab handles, making ingress/egress an easier job. The SHO is further distinguished by standard leather upholstery.
Ride & Drive
Depending on the model, the Taurus is either adequate, quick or just plain fast. The base 3.0-liter V-6 engine is a derivative of the familiar Taurus Vulcan V-6, reworked to increase smoothness and durability. It's satisfactory in daily use, reasonably economical and quiet, though a bit anemic when pulling a full load.
Our LX tester's 3.0-liter dual overhead cam 24-valve V-6, an enlarged version of the new Duratec unit used in the smaller Contour/Mystique, adds spice to the mixture. It's more responsive and just as fuel-efficient, with considerably more top-end power.
More exotic is the first Taurus V-8, a joint Ford/Yamaha design installed in the SHO. Rated at 240 hp, it delivers plenty of punch and thrives on high rpm. Like the other Taurus engine choices, it is available only with a four-speed automatic transmission. Like most of today's automatic transmissions, it's electronically controlled, though it's not quite as smooth as those offered in General Motors' cars.
Road manners are a genuine plus for the Taurus. The ride in our LX tester was comfortable over all types of road surfaces, without compromising handling. Body roll is minimal in corners, and traction is good. The variable-assist power steering transmits just the right amount of road feel to the driver.
Overall, the Taurus' redesigned -- and much stiffer -- chassis has been tuned for a more European feel, and the handling that goes with this tuning is arguably the best of any mid-size family sedan in the business.
The base car brakes are up to hard use, but the LX/LS four-wheel discs are better. ABS is optional on most models, standard on the SHO.
It all boils down to looks. Never mind that the latest Taurus and Sables are the best-built, best-handling, best-performing cars to carry the names, and never mind that they are well equipped, comfortable and full of features that make them good values despite their higher pricetags.
What will drive the final decision for most buyers -- more so here than is the case with most cars -- is their reaction to the exterior design. Some say the new Taurus and Sable look better as they become more familiar sights on the road, others disagree. Some like the sedans and despise the wagons; some like 'em all.
It's worth remembering that the original Taurus and Sable drew similar love/hate responses, and came away from the controversy as best-sellers. If you feel comfortable with the shape, you'll likely be delighted with what lies underneath.
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© 1996 New Car Test Drive, Inc.