Once cutting-edge, Taurus now a workhorse

Sooner or later, you will ride in a Ford Taurus.

Sooner or later, you will ride in a Ford Taurus.

It might be when you hail a cab, rent a car or have your real estate agent pick you up to show you some houses “in your price range.” Unveiled in late 1985, the Taurus and near-identical Mercury Sable were celebrated as the reincarnation of the American sedan.

Today, the Taurus is a fleet-car workhorse.

Having taken some cues from the landmark Audi 5000S, the Taurus was a front-drive unibody with the size and creature comforts familiar to North Americans, but with some European-flavoured performance in an aerodynamic wrapper.

It was a $3-billion gamble that could have flopped badly.

Instead, Middle America was ready for a bold shape. Taurus generated huge sales volumes for Ford – at one point, it was the best-selling car on the continent – but with success came complacency and sloth.

Over time, the Taurus became an also-ran, recycling a stale platform while its competitors reinvented themselves to compete in the hotly contested mid-size segment.

The Taurus had lost its edge. One owner dubbed it the “Ford Bore-us.” CONFIGURATION The Taurus/Sable twins were available as four-door sedans and, in a spark of packaging genius, sleek five-door wagons. The earliest cars were powered by a derivative of the Tempo’s four-cylinder engine, as well as an all-new 3.0-litre V6 producing 140 hp and 160 lb.-ft. of torque. A more powerful 3.8-litre V6 was soon added.

The second-generation cars arrived in 1992, benefiting from fresh but unremarkable styling, improved torsional rigidity and better wheels and tires.

The four-banger was mercifully deep-sixed.

All-new models appeared for 1996. While markedly larger, they appeared smaller than the previous generation, thanks to the radical ovoid styling. The new cars had a face only an engineer could love. More time was spent fortifying the unibody and addressing wind noise.

The all-iron Vulcan pushrod 3.0-litre V6 was given a new running mate in the form of a 3.0-litre version of the all-aluminum Duratec 2.5-litre V6 lifted from the Ford Contour. The newcomer sported a twin-cam head, producing 200 hp and 200 lb.-ft. of grunt, replacing the 3.8 litre on the option sheet.

The fourth generation arrived for 2000 – and not a moment too soon. The previous fish-faced Taurus and Sable had not been well received, and designers scrambled to fix what was supposed to have been another bold step forward.

The styling was considerably better, if a little conservative.

The interior was refreshed, headroom expanded and new safety features were made available, including innovative adjustable pedals. The Vulcan pushrod V6 now made 155 hp.

There wasn’t much to distinguish the Taurus from its competitors (the Sable was dropped in Canada after 1999). Some models offered a front seat that allowed a sixth passenger to squeeze in (the gear selector was moved to the steering column).

But while chief rivals Toyota Camry and Honda Accord continued to grow in several key dimensions, the Taurus remained snug in back-seat accommodations and trunk space.

Ford’s trump card was the Taurus wagon, which provided copious cargo room inside a stylish envelope. Owners boasted that it was a smart and economical alternative to a minivan.

ON THE ROAD Equipped with the 200-hp Duratec V6, a 1998 Taurus SE could sprint to 96 km/h in 8.1 seconds – spirited acceleration for a family sedan. Add almost two seconds for the base Vulcan engine.

The Taurus made a name for itself as a good-handling car, challenging the notion that American sedans have to behave like tippy land yachts.

Older models were criticized for their numb, artificial steering feel, a foible that was addressed in the 2000 cars.

But Ford was content with tinkering with an old design rather than starting with a clean sheet. The Taurus ranked last among its domestic competitors – the Chrysler Intrepid and Chevrolet’s all-new Impala – in a major magazine test comparing year-2000 models.

WHAT OWNERS SAY What killed the Taurus’ best-seller status were some devastating build quality issues in the 1990s. The electronic four-speed automatic transmission that was introduced in 1991 broke down frequently, which generated bad word of mouth.

“When the car was 37.5 months old (and less than 60,000 km), the transmission stayed locked when coming off the 401, and so the engine couldn’t idle in gear,” reported reader Martin Goodman, who ended up replacing the transmission on his 1998 Taurus at a cost of $3,000.

Ford did improve the transmission over the years, but all owners should get in the habit of changing the fluid every two years as preventative maintenance.

The other big headache was the 3.8-litre V6, which had a problem with leaking head gaskets; avoid this engine.

The best motor is the pushrod 3.0-litre Vulcan (not the 24-valve). While none too powerful, it is durable and well mated to the transmission.

Also, keep an ear out for worn wheel bearings and disc brakes.

They wear out faster than you’d think, say readers.

Despite these hiccups, the Taurus has earned a lot of repeat business. Owners love its ride and handling, safety features and prudent size. The wagon is especially coveted.

At 110 km/h on the highway, his 1996 wagon gets an amazing 8.0 L/100 km, writes Frank Van Heck.

Best of all, the cars suffer from steep depreciation – a used-car shopper’s dream.

If you can stomach the styling of the 1996-99 models, you can get a decent sedan for little money (the earlier cars are not recommended). But if you have the bucks, go for the 2000 and newer Taurus. Owners of these are generally very happy.

Or don’t buy anything. Sooner or later, you’ll ride in one anyway.

We would like to know about your ownership experience with the following models: GMC Suburban and Subaru Forester. Send your comments to Mark Toljagic, 2060 Queen St. E., P.O. Box 51541, Toronto, ON M4E 1C0.

E-mail: toljagic @ ca.inter.net.

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