With car buyers in a bearish mood, Ford Motor Co. is revamping its bull.
The Dearborn automaker is set to debut it 2010 Ford Taurus this week at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Ford has completely redesigned the full-size sedan, getting inspiration from the outer curves and lines of the Mustang muscle car.
The goal: Develop a family-focused, full-size sedan that still turns heads in terms of style and class, and bring back a nameplate recognized by most car buyers.
"We needed to be better than the competition because we're trying to get our street cred back," said Mark Fields, Ford's president of the Americas. "We want to restore the luster and excitement and buzz of what a Taurus is all about."
Ford has sold more than 7 million Taurus cars since the model was introduced in late 1985 and called a "jellybean" or "flying potato" because of its futuristic curved design. Sales peaked in 1992, when Ford sold 409,751, and for five years, the car was the top seller in the U.S.
But foreign competition — by the names of Camry and Accord — cut into Taurus' market share. Toyota Motor Corp.'s Camry, specifically, bucked the Taurus off its pedestal in 1997 as Ford began focusing on sport utility vehicles and trucks.
The company all but gave up on the Taurus by 2006, signaled by closing an Atlanta-area plant dedicated to making the car. The model morphed into the Ford Five Hundred until CEO Alan Mulally came to Ford from Boeing Co. that year and ordered the return of the once popular Taurus name, calling it "an icon for Ford and its customers."
Still, sales slagged. Ford sold 52,667 Tauruses in 2008, down 22.8 percent from 2007. Sales in 2007 were down 19 percent from 2006 figures.
At a December preview of Ford's 2010 models, Mulally — who once publicly bashed the latest Taurus — gushed over the new one, which looks entirely different from its predecessor.
"That's my baby," he said.
With the appetite for large trucks and sport utility vehicles waning, Ford is placing more attention on its cars. The company has already rolled out new models including an updated Ford Fusion, with a gas-electric hybrid version set to hit showrooms this year.
Most of the current Taurus design team was not with the company when the model first launched, Fields said, so the team met with the original designers to develop a better understanding of the car.
"The original Taurus changed America's view of full-size sedans," he said. "We hope the new one will do exactly the same."
The car's success also fueled Ford's coffers in the 1990s, giving the company the financial freedom to build a successful light truck portfolio with the Expedition and Explorer, said Michael Robinet, vice president of global forecast services for CSM Worldwide, an auto consulting company in Northville, Michigan.
"In the past there were three key core vehicles at Ford: the F-series, the Explorer and the Taurus," he said. "Ford's world has moved beyond that. This is Ford's fresh chance to define what the modern Taurus should be."
Priced at $25,995 — the same price as the 2009 Taurus — the new version due in showrooms later this year has traits generally found in higher-end cars, Fields said. The decision to include features like adaptive cruise control, blind-spot detection and massaging seats is part of Ford's strategy to offer more value to customers.
The same sensors that automatically reduce the cruise control's speed when there's slower traffic ahead can also switch the headlights to high intensity when no traffic is present.
"Consumers want more for the same or more for less," Robinet said. "Ford has to attract them with new technology, performance, styling and fuel economy."
The new Taurus features a Duratec 3.5-liter V-6 engine with 263 horsepower. Ford plans to make an optional EcoBoost engine with better performance and fuel economy available later. Fuel economy ratings have not been released.
The SEL and Limited series will offer paddle shifters on the steering wheel for optional manual control of the six-speed transmission. Also available are keyless entry with push-button start, and GPS navigation with Ford Sync, the automaker's voice-activated communications and entertainment system.
Ford built the new Taurus on its global product development platform, relying on computer-aided design tools instead of life-size models to bring the car to market a year sooner.
"This really sets the pace for our growing car momentum," Fields said. "We want to make a statement of rounding out our car lineup that Ford is in the car business."