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Ford aims for former glory with Taurus duo

With its revamped Taurus and Taurus X crossover, Ford has turned a pair of also-rans into serious contenders in each of their segments. MotorHead, by Dan Carney.
Image: Ford TaurusX
Ford has reintroduced the Freestyle crossover as the ‘Taurus X.’ It’s smallish for a three-row crossover, but flip-forward second-row seats enhance third-row access.Ford

The Ford Taurus was introduced in the 1980s as a family sedan offering the proposition that an affordable American car could provide sleek, Europe-inspired styling. It quickly became a hit, and between 1987 and 1992, it was the best-selling car in America.

But the Taurus’ star dimmed over time. Its image became hazy as Ford pushed more of the cars into rental fleets to inflate its sales numbers, and soon Hertz & Co. were just about the only customers for the car. Ford pulled the plug on the Taurus in 2005, and by the mid-’00s, the company found itself longing for the Taurus’ glory years.

So when Ford’s new president Alan Mulally landed at Ford’s Dearborn headquarters in September 2006, one of his first moves was to revive the Taurus name. Research showed that it was one of the names customers recognize, unlike that of its successor, the Ford Five Hundred.

For the 2008 model year, Ford has reintroduced the Taurus, apparently rebadging the Five Hundred with the more familiar moniker. At the same time the company renamed the Freestyle crossover SUV as the “Taurus X” (X for “cross” — get it?). The Freestyle was really little more than a station wagon version of the Five Hundred, and the Taurus wagon was popular in its day, so reviving a two-model Taurus lineup makes sense, particularly with the current boom in crossover SUV sales.

It wasn’t simply that the Five Hundred and Freestyle had unfamiliar names; each suffered from having too little oomph to propel their hefty masses. Still worse, that insufficient grunt was channeled through an ineffective continuously variable transmission that seemed to let the engine rev a lot but did little to launch the car down an on-ramp. Shoppers were understandably unimpressed by the drivetrain, although the cars were fundamentally sound.

The two cars were also fundamentally dull-looking, boasting all the visual daring of the Miss Saudi Arabia pageant. The designers were seemingly in a time warp, effectively copying the European car styles of the late ’90s that had since advanced with edgier looks.

In developing the new Taurus and Taurus X, Ford replaced the powertrain and some of the sheetmetal to update the appearance and the performance to 2008 specifications. At the same time the cars received myriad detail improvements aimed at boosting ride and handling while hushing the already-quiet cabin further.

The verdict on these changes is mostly positive. The only shortcoming in the new Taurus is its transmission programming. Ford has replaced the unsatisfactory CVT with an all-new six-speed automatic transmission that the company developed in conjunction with General Motors. Both companies struggled with programming a gearbox with so many speeds available, but to its credit GM did a make-up test after flunking its first try and now its six-speeds work well.

In the Taurus, however, the transmission is prone to downshift too soon, shifting through too many gears and staying in lower gears for too long. The Taurus X is a bigger vehicle and has different programming that seems to work better.

The new 263-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 engine accelerates the Taurus with authority, making downshifts less necessary, and Ford has tuned the engine to run as quietly and smoothly as those found in Toyota’s Camry or Avalon.

On the luxury front, full credit to Ford for the real soft-touch surfaces found throughout the Taurus and the Taurus X. They are in stark contrast to the hard surfaces found in the new Camry and Honda’s Accord, and it contributes to the posh atmosphere in the cabin. However, there is one miss: The rear windows do not fully lower to be flush with the window opening.

Both the Taurus and Taurus X ride on underpinnings derived from Volvo hardware, and the influence shows in the cars’ taut, direct handling. They both steer better than their smaller siblings, the Fusion and the Edge. Customers in this segment aren’t looking for racecars, but accurate steering that responds as expected is a boon to all drivers. The gas pedal is nicely calibrated, unlike the one found in the sluggish Five Hundred, which had been set with a hair trigger in an effort to compensate for a lack of engine power.

This responsiveness helps to disguise the immense size of the Taurus sedan, which is much larger than even the newly enlarged Camry and Accord. It has the tall stance and high roof of a classic car from the ’50s, making it easier to get in and out of, and it’s easier to see out of it too.

The Taurus X, on the other hand, is smallish for a three-row crossover and it feels positively nimble in comparison to bruisers like the hot-selling Buick Enclave. The X’s third row has tolerable comfort for adults and the flip-forward second-row seats contribute to excellent third-row access. Even with its refreshed styling, the Taurus X still lags the racy looks of some of its competitors, but a new chrome grille gives the car enough flair to hold its own in the family hauler segment.

Safety is a crucial factor for family cars, and both the Taurus and the Taurus X deliver. Both are Insurance Institute for Highways Safety “Top Safety Picks,” and both earn five stars in all four categories of government crash tests. They both also feature electronic stability control to prevent crashes and a raft of air bags in case they happen anyway. And the two cars are front-wheel-drive for secure all-weather handling, with available all-wheel-drive for really bad weather. If there is any way to make the Taurus and Taurus X any safer, we don’t know what it is.

Ford has seen an uptick in sales since reintroducing the Taurus name. Actual sales are a tough measure because the full-size car segment is shrinking, the company notes, but the Taurus’s share of that pie has grown by 60 percent since it replaced the Five Hundred.

It’s easy to see why. Like the Five Hundred, the Taurus is spacious, comfortable and quiet, with sharper looks, new power and a better — if still imperfect — transmission.

So the Taurus is again a legitimate option in the big car category, and the Taurus X is a winner too, matching comfort, convenience and practicality with engaging driving dynamics and a manageable size for parking lots.