Ford has resurrected the familiar nameplate of its midsize Taurus sedan and plunked it on an upgraded version of its Five Hundred full-size sedan and similar Freestyle station wagon/crossover vehicle, which have had slow sales partly because of low consumer recognition.
The 2008 Five Hundred thus becomes the "Taurus," and the Freestyle becomes the rather oddly named "Taurus X."
Meanwhile, the upscale version of the Five Hundred, the Mercury Montego, gets the old Sable nameplate. That makes sense because the Sable was an uptown version of the Taurus. (There was no wagon/crossover version of the Montego, so there's no such version of the new Sable.)
The Five Hundred, Freestyle and Montego arrived for the 2005 model year. As with the Taurus and Sable, all have been built in Chicago, where the Taurus also was produced until dropped after the 2006 model year.
Ford's research revealed that the Five Hundred and its two sister vehicles sold well-below expectations because relatively few consumers even knew they existed. Moreover, they had rather nondescript styling and were criticized for having an underpowered engine.
It really wasn't very fair because the roomy, nicely built trio were cleanly styled and competed in a market hardly known for styling pizzazz. And they had a 203-horsepower V6 that provided decent acceleration but was still criticized for being underpowered.
The 2007 Five Hundred (and Montego) are full-size cars, considerably larger than the last Taurus. But the 2008 versions are competing in the midsize sedan market dominated by the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, as the Taurus did.
Roomy Third Row
As for the Taurus X, it's in the rapidly growing market for crossover vehicles. Crossovers (many of which are glorified wagons) have SUV features but car-based underpinnings that make them more fuel-efficient and easier to handle-not to mention third-row seats that many families find desirable. Yes, the Taurus X has a third-row seat, and it's commendably roomy even for two 6-footers.
The Taurus seemed revolutionary to generally conservative American sedan buyers when introduced in 1985 and was America's top-selling car for five years straight, starting in 1987.
A new midsize Taurus arrived with sleeker styling for 1996. It was significantly improved, but many felt the styling made it look smaller than the first-generation Taurus and turned to Japanese cars such as the increasingly improved Camry and Accord, which now dominate the midsize sedan market.
Rental Fleet Fate
Many Taurus models ended up being dumped in rental car fleets, as Ford introduced the Five Hundred, Freestyle-and Montego. But relatively few folks put them on shopping lists and continued flocking to Japanese cars, or to flashier big sedans such as the Chrysler 300.
However, many fondly remembered the first-generation Taurus, and the second-generation version kept the car's name alive. Financially troubled Ford's new boss, former Boeing executive Alan Mulally, also knew about the Taurus, and top Ford executives convinced him to rename the upgraded 2008 Five Hundred the Taurus and the improved Freestyle the Taurus X. It was only natural that the Montego got the old Sable nameplate.
Mullally isn't a "car guy," but he's a smart executive who knew it would take billions of dollars to give a car the name recognition the Taurus enjoyed.
I tested the 2008 Taurus sedan, although I spent a little more time with the Taurus X because of the fast-growing popularity of crossover vehicles. Both the Taurus and Taurus X are nearly mechanically identical. However, the Taurus has a conventional sedan layout with two seating rows and a big trunk and the Taurus X has three rows of seats and a hatchback.
Both are exceptionally roomy for passengers and cargo, with wide-opening doors. And it's easy to reach the third-row seat of the Taurus X when its second- and third-row seats are folded forward. A power hatch door for the Taurus X is a convenient option, but I found it operates slowly.
Both trim levels are well-equipped and can be had with front-wheel drive or an improved all-wheel-drive system.
Taurus prices are competitive. They go from $23,245 for the entry sedan to $28,695 for the Limited AWD sedan with all-wheel drive. Taurus X prices range from $26,615 for the entry SEL trim level to $31,800 for the Limited AWD equipped with all-wheel drive.
More Potent Engine
A smooth, quiet 3.5-liter 263-horsepower V6 replaces the smaller V6 and delivers strong acceleration. The continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) has been dropped, leaving only a more responsive, conventional 6-speed automatic as standard.
Fuel economy for the sedan is an estimated 18 mpg in the city and 28 on highways with front-wheel drive and 17 and 24 with all-wheel drive. Figures for the Taurus X are 16 and 24 with front-wheel drive and 15 and 22 with all-wheel drive. Only 87-octane gasoline is needed.
To give its new models some flash, styling changes for the Taurus and Taurus X include the Ford brand's new signature three-bar chrome grille and new front fascia.
In addition, the Taurus gets a sculpted hood with crisp accent lines and new rear fascia and different taillights. The Taurus X also has a new fascia and restyled hood, along with newly shaped front fenders and a new rear fascia.
Ford says the Taurus and Taurus X have more than 500 improvements that make them quieter, faster and safer than their predecessors.
However, drive the two models back-to-back and it soon becomes evident that the Taurus sedan feels lighter on its feet. The Taurus X is higher and heavier than the sedan, and thus feels a little less lively and doesn't handle as sharply as the sedan.
Larger Taurus X
Both use a Volvo-derived platform, as did the Five Hundred and Freestyle, and ride on a 112.9-inch wheelbase. They have approximately the same length and width, but the Taurus X weighs 4,033 to 4,203 pounds, compared to 3,741 to 3,930 for the Taurus. And the Taurus X is 67.6 inches high, against 61.5 inches for the Taurus sedan.
Neither Ford falls in a sports category because they're essentially conservative family vehicles with average-but-responsive handling. Steering is linear, and a revised suspension delivers a ride that is smooth, but gets a little bouncy over uneven pavement. Braking is fine, with a pedal that feels rather soft but has a linear action.
Interiors look upscale and are extremely quiet, thanks to plenty of sound insulation. However, front seats in both the Taurus and Taurus X provide just average support and comfort. And fuel level and coolant temperature gauges are very small-although the speedometer and tachometer are large.
The Taurus X has a console shift lever that partly blocks cupholders for a driver. And there is a mixture of small and large climate controls and lot of small dashboard buttons that take learning.
Much Safety Equipment
The Taurus X has standard electronic stability control, which is optional for the sedan. Both have a long list of safety equipment, including front-seat side airbags and side-curtain airbags.
In fact, the new Taurus was rated the safest full-size car in America and got a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS). The Taurus X was rated the safest seven-passenger crossover vehicle, and also got a "Top Safety Pick" rating from the IIHS.
With widespread name recognition, more power and other improvements, the new Taurus and Taurus X certainly promise to outdo the Five Hundred and Freestyle