MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Crossing the Mississippi River on the massive M-shaped I-40 span at Memphis, we're rolling into Tennessee in a fancy sedan with a well-stocked passenger compartment that's big enough to transport five travelers in comfort and house a heap of luggage in the generous trunk.
These wheels de jour amount to a new flagship sedan for Ford in the package of a mid-size model but the cabin of a big car with high-riding seats and a load of high-tech and luxury gear.
It's the 2010 Taurus, a familiar moniker tracing back a couple of decades in various formats but applied now to a fresh design for the largest sedan in Ford's garage.
With its high arching silhouette and taut character lines cut into flanks between bulging wheel arches, the new body styling for Taurus '10 seems more sculptural and powerful -- note the powerdome hood and a flashy three-bar grille ahead of the articulated front fenders.
Also, check the chrome vents on those fenders.
Roots of this car trace to Ford's 2005 Five Hundred, a sedan fostering airs of a precise European touring car due to the rigid platform borrowed from Volvo, Sweden's automaker under the corporate umbrella of Ford.
Then for 2008 Ford applied the Taurus badge to a new and improved version of Five Hundred with more than 500 changes to enhance the vehicle.
Now for 2010 the car gets still another make-over with crisp new exterior styling, a larger structural package with expanded cabin room, and more electronic controls aboard for safety and convenience.
The platform has the same 112.9-inch wheelbase but the wheel track -- measurement of the width between wheels -- expands by a full inch.
Structural changes include an inch added to the overall length and 1.7 inches more breadth, yet the roofline has been whittles by almost an inch for a sleeker silhouette.
Still, it's a tall package.
Doors run deep to make cabin entry and exit easy and seats are elevated so passengers sit a few inches higher than in other sedans of comparable size. Ford labels the design as 'Command Seating' and compares the upright seat position to that of a crossover utility vehicle.
And while the beltline is high, so too is the wrap of windows around the cabin so a driver has good sight lines with virtually no blind spots -- note triangular glass in rear roof pillars to diminish corner vision blockage.
The suspension system for Taurus is completely independent. In front there are MacPherson struts with rear-facing L-shaped lower control arms and isolation via a sub-frame. In the rear a multi-link design has stamped steel lower control arms and cast upper control arms with vertically mounted shocks positioned at the outboard end of the suspension arms.
New suspension tuning -- dubbed SR1 for the 1-to-1 rear shock absorber ratio -- sets a balance between cornering and handling with a stable and smooth baseline.
Stock wheels are painted aluminum at 17 inches but there are options for 18-inch and 19-inch aluminum rollers on top trims.
Taurus '10 scores in the power department with a twin-cam 3.5-liter aluminum V6 engine with four valves per cylinder and intake variable camshaft timing.
The V6 produces 263 hp at 6250 rpm and torque of 249 lb-ft at 4500 rpm.
Yet it runs efficiently on 87 octane unleaded fuel with EPA estimates of 18 mpg City and 28 mpg Highway.
The V6 engine in Taurus links to a six-speed electronic automatic transaxle with standard front-wheel-drive (FWD) or optional all-wheel-drive (AWD) traction.
Entry issue Taurus SE in FWD employs a six-speed automatic with Grade-Assist hill-holding feature and a 2.77 final drive ratio.
Taurus SEL and Limited get a six-speed electronic automatic SelectShift transaxle with shift paddles perched on the steering wheel and racy match-rev downshifts.
For Taurus SEL the final drive ratio amounts to 2.77-to-1, but on Taurus Limited there's a 3.16-to-1 gear for the FWD version and a 3.39-to-1 ratio for the AWD model -- all for an extra kick in the throttle.
The optional AWD device for Taurus is a sophisticated electronically controlled system developed by Haldex of Sweden. It's always engaged and automatically splits the engine's torque between front and rear wheels -- up to 100 percent in either direction -- to keep tires rolling on pavement wet or dry.
Purpose of AWD hardware is to maintain forward momentum and keep the vehicle heading safely down the road.
The spec sheet for Taurus lists lots of active and passive safety equipment.
Passive devices include smart dual-stage frontal air bags for front riders, plus seat-mounted side air bags up front and curtain-style side air bags front and rear.
Active safety systems range from four-wheel disc brakes tied to an anti-lock brake system (ABS) and traction control system (TCS) or Ford's AdvanceTrac electronic anti-skid mechanism.
Essentially, the passenger compartment on Taurus was designed around body sizes of intended occupants, with more than adequate room for long legs and broad shoulders.
The cabin layout pitches a pair of bucket seats up front divided by a multi-function console and followed by a rear bench for three with seatback split in sections.
The instrument panel houses round analog gauges ringed by thin beads of chrome.
Cool ideas make it nice inside:
* Intelligent Access with Push Button Start -- a driver totes a keyless fob, taps a touch pad on the door pillar to enter, then cranks the engine from a push-button starter.
* Adaptive Cruise Control -- a radar-based system capable of maintaining a precise distance between the Taurus front bumper and the back bumper of a vehicle ahead.
* BLIS (Blind Spot Information System) with Cross Traffic Alert via icons in side mirrors.
* Ford Sync -- voice-activated control over in-car phones, media players and USB storage devices.
Ford surprises with price points on the 2010 Taurus at the level of 2009 models, beginning at $25,180 for base Taurus SE FWD.