by Mike Knepper
Top choice for hundreds of thousands.
Base Price $18,795
As Tested $23,870
The big news about Taurus this year is that there are fewer versions of them. The base G and the GL sedans and the GL and LX wagons have been dropped from the lineup. An SE sedan and wagon have been added and the LX sedan and the high-performance SHO are still there, although the LX has dropped from the top of the line to the bottom.
The idea, Ford says, is to make things simpler for everyone. Fewer models and the elimination of Ford's previously dizzying array of options packages mean less confusion in the showroom and less manufacturing cost. We think this is a better idea.
The Taurus never fails to attract attention. Most people either like the styling or they don't. The current model makes a bolder design statement than the previous model. The theme is oval. Close observation reveals some subtle styling changes this year: twin openings under the front bumper are now combined for one horizontal opening, the grille opening now has a Ford oval on a horizontal chrome bar, the parking lamps have been redesigned, the taillamps have a monochrome treatment.
The SE, intended for younger buyers looking for something sporty, has cloth bucket seats, a center console with a floor shifter, a rear spoiler, chrome wheel covers and the base engine.
There are two engines available -- three, if you count the SHO's V-8 and four, considering a new flexible-fuel version of the base engine that runs on gasoline, ethanol or methanol. The base, or Vulcan, engine is a 3.0-liter overhead-valve V-6 rated at 145 horsepower, which is standard on the LX and SE. Optional for both is a double overhead-cam, 32-valve, 3.0-liter Duratec V-6 that makes 200 hp and goes for a bargain-basement $495.
All engines work through a four-speed automatic. A higher stall-speed torque converter permits the Duratec 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. Last year, Ford recalibrated the computer controls for its Taurus and Sable automatic transmissions to provide smoother shifting. Shift quality was a persistent criticism of first-year editions of the redesigned car. Now, with the new torque converter and axle ratio, the entire transmission package is more efficient and unobtrusive.
The V-8 in the SHO is rated at 235 hp. The SHO acronym stands for Super High Output, and this engine transforms this mild-mannered family sedan into a fast touring car with extra long legs. Ford calls it an "executive express," a phrase that's appropriate for its excellent midrange response, performance-tuned suspension and $29,470 base price.
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.
The Inside Story
The exterior oval theme is picked up inside on the instrument panel, vents, door handle recesses and elsewhere. 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 instrument panels on the Accord and Camry, which are Japanese generic.
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 and it doesn't take long for a driver to make adjustments by touch alone, without taking attention away from the road. We also liked the high-quality, high-tech feel of the push buttons and switches.
A front bench seat is standard in all models, with buckets available as part of the Sport Package in the SE. The Sport Package also comes with a rear spoiler and a console-mounted shift lever.
With seating for six, you can get a patented 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.
Manual air conditioning is standard across the board, electronic climate control is optional. Electronically controlled sound systems are also standard.
Last year's myriad selection of models, options and option packages was complex and confusing, requiring knowledgeable salespeople and patient buyers. This year, as mentioned, things are much simpler.
Our LX sedan tester loaded with everything but leather and a moon roof, retails for $23,870. This year, if you want the more powerful engine but don't want a lot of whistles and bells, you can order the engine without taking an expensive options package.
Ride & Drive
Reactions to the original Taurus were that Ford had made a giant gain in ride, handling, steering feel and overall mechanical quality. The same is true for the current generation Taurus as it goes into its third season. As good as the old Taurus had become -- it had been in an ongoing refinement program for almost a decade -- the new Taurus was a leap ahead, a leap that started with one of the best chassis in the midsize class.
While the overhead-valve Vulcan V-6 provides adequate performance, the best choice is the double overhead-cam Duratec, which brings more merging and passing power and more fun. It is smooth, quiet and responsive. Ford's Duratec engine feels good launching off the line.
The four-speed automatic is a very good match. Thanks to improved control chip programming, the shifts are clean and precise.
A well-engineered chassis allows the suspension to perform well, keeping the car flat in corners and sopping up bumps and bangs.
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 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 was a good move.
The Taurus faces strong rivals in 1998, particularly from its perennial nemesis, the Honda Accord, which has been redesigned. 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.
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©1998 New Car Test Drive, Inc.
© 1998 New Car Test Drive