All this practicality, and excitement, too.
by Ted West
Base Price (MSRP) $18,260
As Tested (MSRP) $24,510
While not as overtly outre as the previous generation, the current Taurus remains a styling leader, sleek, fresh and contemporary, confidently leading the way to Ford's future.
But like every previous Taurus, this one grabs attention with its styling and then keeps it with its engaging combination of everyday practicality and enthusiast flair. Both of its powertrains deliver vigorous response. Its handling, while suitably smooth and comfortable, delivers a sporting crispness that will satisfy even the aspiring Formula 1 driver in the family.
The cabin is functional and attractive, with controls that are straightforward and easy to use. The materials, switchgear and interior textures have a high-quality look and feel.
For 2001, Ford offers the Taurus sedan in four trim levels. LX is now the standard level, although at $18,260 it offers a reasonable list of standard equipment, including second-generation, dual-stage airbags; air conditioning; power windows, mirrors and door locks; speed-sensitive power steering with tilt steering wheel; and tachometer.
The lower-mid-range SE ($19,035) adds cruise control, remote keyless entry, color-keyed mirrors, a cassette player, and five-spoke aluminum wheels. Next up is SES ($20,050), with ABS, six-way power seats, CD player, and "aerodynamic" bumpers, among other luxuries.
At the top of the line is the $21,535 SEL, also with "aero" bumpers as well as a more powerful engine, automatic headlights, automatic climate control, heater mirrors, a perimeter anti-theft system, leather wrapped steering wheel, machined aluminum road wheels, and both cassette and CD capability.
A single wagon variant is offered. Although badged "SE," it is somewhat better equipped than the SE sedan, with four-wheel-disc brakes, power antenna, six-way power seats, luggage rack, rear-window wiper/washer; and a rear anti-roll bar. With its 60/40 split rear seats folded down, this roomy wagon has space for a maximum of 81.3 cu. ft. of cargo; or with six passengers aboard, there's still 38.8 cu. ft. behind them. The SE Wagon lists for $20,190. Adding option groups 96W ($300) and 85A ($1,040) upgrades the Wagon to the equivalent of an SES sedan.
Two engines power the Taurus. Standard in all but the SEL is a 3.0-liter ohv 12-valve V6 Ford calls the Vulcan, presumably after the god of ironworking, not Earth's staunchest interplanetary allies. It produces 155 horsepower and 185 pounds-feet of torque. Our past experience with this engine has been generally positive. Although not particularly quick from a standstill, once rolling it delivers more than adequate performance, along with a nicely rorty exhaust note.
Standard in the SEL is a more sophisticated 3.0-liter dohc 24-valve V6 Ford calls Duratec. This is a higher-revving power plant producing 200 horsepower and 200 pounds-feet of torque, and you can order it as a $695 option in the SES sedan or SE wagon. Good as the Vulcan engine is, one drive with the responsive Duratec V6, and you may never be satisfied with less.
Both engines come with a four-speed automatic transmission.
LX and SE sedans are set up to seat five, with bucket seats up front and a floor-mounted gear selector in a swoopy-looking center console. SE Wagon, SES, and SEL are all nominal six-seaters, equipped with a "seating console" between their front buckets, and a column-mounted gear lever. LX and SE buyers can switch up to six-seat capacity at no extra charge, but it costs SES and SEL buyers $105 to give up the seating console and have the floor-mounted shifter instead.
Approaching the new Taurus at curbside, you'll first notice the muscular, forceful appearance that sets it apart from its blander-looking competitors. The grille is broad, aggressive, and unmistakably Ford-oval, grinning between the large, cat's-eye headlights. Taurus's flanks have handsomely modeled character lines, and the rear bears a resemblance to the sexy stern of the Jaguar S-Type.
Primary controls and instrumentation are admirably simple, straightforward and easy to use. Ford's well-publicized adjustable pedals ($120) make a comfortable driving position possible for even very short-legged drivers. The small-diameter, leather-wrapped steering wheel has a pleasingly thick grip. Buttons for the cruise control are mounted on the steering wheel and are easy to operate. The highly legible gauges, which include an analog speedometer and tachometer, are white-on-black. A single stalk on the left of the steering column operates the washer and wipers and the bright/dim control for the headlights. The power-window automatic-down circuit operates on the driver's-side window only, and there is no automatic-up. On the dashboard just below the tachometer is an on/off switch for the optional traction control, useful when driving with chains and/or in snow.
On the other hand, the central console containing audio and heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) controls is an intimidating sea of similar-looking push-buttons and toggle switches. While elsewhere the Taurus is ergonomically first-rate, operating the controls on this panel requires very careful reading of the various closely spaced buttons. Among the audio controls, only the volume control is a rotary knob--it would be more convenient if the station-tuner were a twist-knob as well.
The removable six-CD changer/cassette is cleverly concealed in the center console at the driver's right elbow. This is far more convenient than the remote 12-CD changers commonly hidden in the trunk of other cars.
The center console is furnished with twin foldaway cupholders, though the swing arm meant to hold your cup in place is not as firm as it might've been. Overhead, our SE had a tilt/slide moonroof, with a difference. Opening the panel required only one touch of the button, whereupon it opened automatically. Very bright idea. But to close it required holding the button down.
Our test car had the optional five-seat layout, and the excellent front seats provided very good lateral support for a family sedan--without being too tight for the Big Guy driver. The cushions and seatbacks are more firm than cushy, but firm is usually best on long drives. Each of the lighted vanity mirrors in the two front visors features a rheostat for regulating their brightness, a novel touch.
The roomy rear compartment seats three, although the seat forms two semi-buckets and has a pull-down central armrest containing two cupholders. An HVAC duct at the rear of the center console provides climate control for rear passengers. Dual baby-seat anchors are provided on each side of the rear seat. In the SES and SEL, the rear seatback is split 60/40 and folds down, providing an enormous pass-through luggage capability for skis and other long items. The trunk is of generous size and contains the Taurus' mini-spare tire.
While the 2001 Taurus is rich with interesting features, no list of hardware can sum up this car's greatest strength--its behavior on the road. Its Duratec V6 is as responsive as a finger snap, delivering crisp acceleration from low revs straight through to the glass-smooth full-throttle shift point. This engine not only provides good thrust, it makes an understated but nicely throaty declaration that it means business. In the tradition of the high-performance Taurus SHO, the current SEL is a genuinely satisfying car to drive.
Automatic transmissions have been improving by leaps and bounds in the past five years, and the Taurus four-speed is no exception. Its shifts are positive, authoritative, and at the same time, almost impossible to feel. The kickdown response is not quite as quick as with some of the best European automatics, but it's still very, very good.
If you ever wonder just how important modern electronics have become, the Taurus with its powerful Duratec engine can quickly demonstrate the benefits of traction control: Simply switch off the traction control, nail the throttle, and the front tires will shriek as they claw for traction. With a powerful modern front-wheel drive package like the SEL's Duratec engine, traction control works very well, reducing wheel spin to help you better control the car.
The Taurus chassis proves an uncommonly successful home for this forceful Duratec drivetrain. Its all-independent suspension provides a smooth, impact-free ride. Unusual in a family sedan, however, Taurus uses gas-pressurized shock absorbers, so that when it is pushed in the corners, it proves stable, nimble and ready for more. Cornered hard, its body roll is moderate, and the nicely tuned variable-ratio power rack-and-pinion steering delivers a steady stream of road information. And when the turning is done, this steering system provides improved on-center response, guiding you straight down the center of your course once more.
As we learned in an emergency lane-change demonstration set up in a parking lot, the brakes bring the Taurus to a smooth stop and the ABS allows you to maintain steering control during hard braking. Braking performance was much smoother than that of the Dodge Intrepid.
With its excellent chassis and Duratec power, Taurus comes very close to being a very good sports sedan for the price of a family mid-size.
Vastly improved last year, the Ford Taurus remains more than just competent: It is a genuinely exciting family sedan. It offers little to complain about, combined with many reasons to nod and smile appreciatively. The Taurus offers very good mid-market value with excellent drivetrains, good looks, plenty of creature comforts, and the added bonus of a surprising level of driving pleasure.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.