by Mike Knepper
A perennial best-seller.
Base Price $17,995
As Tested $19,495
The big news for the Taurus this year is that the price has dropped. The base LX is $1000 less than last year, dropping to $17,995. The upscale SE dropped $1080 to $18,995, while the SE wagon is down $1840 to $19,995. And you no longer have to pay for the mandatory emissions equipment, so that's another $170 drop off every window sticker.
Last year, Ford made choosing a Taurus easier by trimming the number of models available to just four: LX, SE, SE Wagon and SHO.
Ford has sold more than 4 million Tauruses since its 1986 introduction. It was the best-selling car in the U.S. from 1992 to 1996 and more than 357,000 were sold last year. The Taurus is popular in rental car fleets. And in just one year it has assumed a starring role on the booming NASCAR Winston Cup circuit.
Most people either like the styling of the Taurus or they don't. The current model makes a bolder design statement than the previous generation. The theme is oval inside and out.
Both LX and SE come standard with the Vulcan 3.0-liter overhead-valve V6 rated at 145 horsepower. Optional for both is a double overhead-cam, 32-valve, 3.0-liter Duratec V6 that makes 185 hp.
(The $29,550 Taurus SHO comes with a 235-horsepower 3.4-liter dohc V8. The "Super High Output" engine transforms this mild-mannered family sedan into a fast touring car with excellent midrange throttle response and a suspension tuned for high-performance handling. Another option is a new flexible-fuel version of the Vulcan engine that runs on gasoline, ethanol or methanol.)
All Tauruses come with four-speed automatic transmissions. Shift quality was a persistent criticism of first-year editions of this latest-generation Taurus, so Ford recalibrated the computer controls changed the torque converter and used a different final-drive ratio. The result is smoother, more efficient shifting. The more powerful Duratec engine comes with a higher stall-speed torque converter to allow it to rev more quickly to its most efficient operating range. This combines with a numerically higher axle ratio to produce quicker off-the-line acceleration.
It has taken Detroit a while to come to parity with the Europeans and Japanese in the suspension department, and the Taurus is a good example of getting it right. The front suspension is a MacPherson strut design with a lower control arm and stabilizer bar. It's simple but effective.
The rear suspension is a bit more complicated with what Ford calls its Quadralink design; four links locate the suspension. The advantage is a more precisely positioned suspension to maximize handling and response. Along with the links are coil springs, shocks and a stabilizer bar.
Power steering is standard, of course, but Taurus adds speed-sensitive variable assist, which means at low speeds there is more power assist for easier turning while at higher speeds there is less assist for more road feel. There are disc brakes in front with drum brakes at the rear. The wagon and the SHO get rear discs. ABS is optional on the wagon, standard on the SHO.
The Inside Story
The exterior oval theme is picked up inside on the instrument panel, vents and door handle recesses. At first glance you may not care for the large oval in the center of the dash, which contains the heating, ventilation, air conditioning and sound system controls. But give it some time. In an era when most instrument panels all seem to look alike, the one in the Taurus is a refreshingly distinctive change. It is especially distinctive when compared to the generic instrument panels on the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. And the Taurus interior is more attractive and is of a higher quality than the Chevy Malibu.
The instrument panel is also well organized. The buttons and switches run from lower left to upper right within the oval for a double visual shock, but the arrangement is quite logical; it doesn't take long for a driver to make adjustments by touch alone without taking attention away from the road. The buttons and switches have a high-quality, high-tech feel.
Bucket seats are standard on all models with a floor-mounted shifter. An optional front bench seat is available with a three-way flip-fold console seat. The center portion can be used as a seating position, with its own safety belt, or it can be flipped forward to become an armrest, or it can be folded open once more to reveal storage compartments for cups, tapes and coins. We found the center space too small for even small people. But for organizing the small items that get scattered around in a family car, this is an exceptionally inventive piece of design work. The bench seat comes with a column-mounted shifter.
Air conditioning is standard, electronic climate control is optional.
Last year's myriad selection of models, options and option packages was complex and confusing, requiring knowledgeable salespeople and patient buyers. This year things are simpler, though it's still sometimes confusing which items are standard and which are optional. If you want the more powerful Duratec engine, but don't want a lot of bells and whistles, you can order the engine without taking an expensive options package.
Ride & Drive
The first-generation Taurus represented a giant gain in ride, handling, steering feel and overall mechanical quality for Ford and the company continued to refine it for almost a decade. But the current generation Taurus - now in its third season - is a leap ahead of the old one.
That leap started with one of the best chassis in the midsize class. A well-engineered chassis allows the suspension to perform well, keeping the car flat in corners and sopping up bumps and bangs. The Taurus handles well, though it feels bigger and heavier than a Camry, Accord or Malibu.
While the overhead-valve Vulcan V6 provides adequate performance, the best choice is the double overhead-cam Duratec. Smooth, quiet and responsive, Ford's Duratec engine feels good launching off the line. The additional power makes merging and passing quicker and safer. It also makes the car more fun to drive.
The four-speed automatic is an excellent match with clean and precise shifts.
Visibility is good all around, with the sloping hood lending an IMAX feel to the view up front. Although general seating comfort is good, we found the optional bench seat marginal in terms of lateral support. Even though the cloth is somewhat grippy, it doesn't take much of a side load to scoot your bottom left or right. The bucket seats are definitely more comfortable and secure.
The Taurus is a success, because it is a dependable, roomy sedan with the standard features buyers are demanding. Reducing the model count makes the buying experience easier.
The Taurus faces strong rivals in 1999, particularly from its perennial nemesis, the Honda Accord, which was redesigned last year. Add to that a strong charge from the recently redesigned Toyota Camry. Pricing and performance of the three are basically on a par. So when it gets to crunch time around the kitchen table, the choice in many families may hinge on that controversial Taurus shape.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.