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1996 Ford Taurus/Sable

The story goes that Alex Trotman, chairman of the Ford Motor

Co., paid a weekly visit to the design studio where the 1996

Taurus was taking shape. "Not radical enough!" was his constant

theme. "Shake me up!"

Mr. Trotman, your car is ready.

Taurus' position as top-selling car on the continent, not to

mention Trotman's job and his company's very survival, hang on

how you, the buying public, react to this startling automobile.

Ford hasn't merely stepped off the curb here; it's leaped off

a precipice.

Ford defends the drama by pointing out that the original 1986

Taurus and its Mercury sibling, the Sable, were equally radical

in their time. Having criticized other car companies for losing

their nerve with new designs, I can only applaud the philosophy.

But the 1986 Taurus/Sable replaced the Fairmont/Zephyr, cars

that desperately needed replacing. The new ones succeeds

landmarks, by any measure.

The '86 version, the first modern mass-market "aero" car, had

a couple of brilliant precursors — the 1983 Thunderbird and the

1984 Audi 5000. The 1996s have only the Oldsmobile Aurora as

soul mate the profiles are similar, although the Olds has more

balanced proportions.

Perhaps most important, the '86 Taurus/Sable basked in

universal critical acclaim, even if it took the public a while

to catch on. The '96 edition has the design community around the

world scratching its collective head.

Several generally accepted design precepts have been violated

here. The overhangs, front and rear, are exaggerated, rather

than minimized. The huge wheel arches make the substantial tires

look like rollerblade rubber.

The close-set ovoid headlamps and flattened oval grille

opening suggest the face of a cross-eyed flounder. The rocker

panel sill could be a badly glued on after-market piece.

The confluence of differently proportioned ovals for side and

back windows at the rear roof pillar confuses the eye; the

previous-generation Toyota Celica tried to lead the market down

this path five years ago, and the market said, "No thanks".

These things have clearly been done deliberately; Ford's

designers are well educated professionals. Either they really

thought these rules needed breaking, or they're playing a huge

trick on Trotman and the rest of us.

I would never presume to be the arbiter of public taste. But

park a 1996 Taurus/Sable next to a four-year-old Chrysler LH

sedan and tell me which one you hope represents the future.

The surprises continue inside, particularly in the first

serious rethink of radio and heater-ventilation-air conditioning

(HVAC) controls in decades. All are contained in a single

again, oval centre panel. With the optional automatic air

conditioning and AM/FM stereo cassette radio, this results in no

fewer than 33 push buttons and one knob (for radio volume),

which also doubles as an on/off push button.

With manual air conditioning, eleven HVAC buttons are replaced

by three conventional round knobs — a great trade, since I'm not

a push-button fan.

All these buttons seem randomly scattered across the panel,

rather than lined up like good soldiers. But obviously, a lot of

thought has been put into this, because whatever function you

want, the right button falls readily to hand. It works.

The system is also theft-proof. Not that it can't be stolen

it's actually easy to remove. But it will only fit a Taurus or

Sable, and all of them already have one, so the bad guys have no

market. Smart.

Base cars have a six-seat configuration. It would have to be

raining pretty hard for the middle front seat to be preferable

to walking, but at least it's available.

And it conceals a clever multiple personality. First, the

middle segment of the seatback folds down into an armrest. The

centre seat cushion can also pivot forward, revealing a triple

cup/can holder, plus a covered cassette tape storage bin that's

cellphone compatible. The largest cupholder accommodates mug

handles.

This movable console hides the ashtray/accessory plug when

deployed; you can smoke or drink, but not both — perhaps not

such a bad idea.

Like all new Fords since the Windstar minivan, there's no flat

place in theTaurus/Sable to just toss stuff. Ford says it's a

safety feature fewer things to stab you in a crash. Maybe so,

but what about the distraction it causes when you're trying to

stash things into the hard-to-reach glovebox while driving? Yes,

we should stop to do this, but we must deal with the real world

here.

Ford Canada's pubic affairs spokesperson, John Arnone, was

nervous about my reaction to the patterned "saddle cloth"

upholstery, but I think it's great. North America is years

behind Europe in interior fabrics; I hope this catches on.

Instruments are clear and concise, and include a tach-o-meter

as standard equipment. My only beef is that when the fuel gauge

needle is horizontal, the tank isn't half full, as you might

expect; it's closer to a quarter and dropping fast.

A matte finish on the driver's-side dash top does such a good

job cutting reflected glare that you wonder why they didn't do

the same thing for the passenger's side, too.

Some riders found the "wrap-around" dash a bit cozy. Despite

the car being almost 14 centimetres (5.5 inches) longer than

before, some interior dimensions are marginally smaller, notably

rearseat headroom, thanks to the slanted rear window. But rear

legroom is up, and overall, the car feels — and is — spacious.

Trunk space is down by more than 0.05 cubic metres (two cubic

feet), and the suspension towers intrude more. But the opening

is cut down to bumper level for easier loading. The rear

seatback splitfolds, further improving load-carrying

flexibility.

The central rear seat has a unique separate shoulder belt that

can be attached to the lap belt when carrying a regular

passenger, or detached if you're using the lap belt to secure a

child safety seat.

Mechanically, Taurus/Sable is a combination of old and new.

The base engine remains the pushrod 3 litre Vulcan V6, reworked

for lighter weight, lower noise, reduced emissions and higher

output — 145 horses and 170 poundfeet of torque, both being

five more than before.

The oneup engine, standard and only available on the

uplevel Taurus LX and Sable LS, is a 3 litre stretch of the

four-cam, 24-valve Duratec V6, introduced last year on the

Contour/Mystique.

It's rated at 200 horses and 200 poundfeet of torque, but

both peaks occur at higher revs than on the Vulcan. A

back-to-back comparison suggested to me that the older engine is a

better bet for typical North American driving, due to its

superior low-end grunt.

Ford is inordinately proud of its new "non-synchronous",

four-speed electronic automatic transmission that comes with the

Duratec (the Vulcan makes do with the older "synchronous"

four-speed auto).

Again, the backto back failed to provide much support for

the firm's enthusiasm. The old tranny shifts well; the only

glitch is a noticeable thump when it drops down two gears, as

when turning off a rural highway on to a smaller road.

The suspension retains the former layout MacStruts at both

ends but with revised geometry for less "nose dive" under

hard braking and reduced "squat" on hard acceleration.

Ride quality is good overall; I noticed a lot of bump-thump

on the loaded Duratec Sable I drove around Ford's engine plant

in Windsor, Ont., but less in the Taurus GL I spent several days

in around here.

The two suspensions are ostensibly identical, as are the

tires. I didn't check tire pressures, but the handling didn't

suggest any huge discrepancies. Maybe Windsor's roads are even

worse than ours.

The biggest improvement in the new Taurus/Sable comes in

steering feel. Ford's variable-assist power steering, used in

several of its models, has never felt better. The car corners

with a confidence-inspiring tautness.

Ford is claiming Toyota Camry-like assembly quality for its

new mid-sizers. Well, not yet. Each of my test cars had a couple

of buzzes and squeaks, and some questionable plastic bits that

you just won't find on a Camry.

Also unimpressive was the way tweeters for the optional

six-speaker sound system were affixed to the front door posts.

The rough plastic edges and tackedon nature of these bits is

unacceptable in any car, let alone one that can cost over

$30,000.

Speaking of price, Ford has kept the price reasonable on the

new Taurus/Sable if you can accept 22 grand as reasonable.

Which you'd better, because that's today's reality. This outlay

includes such niceties as solar glass, intermittent wipers,

splitfolding rear back seat, air conditioning and the MicronAir

filtration system which, by the way, is optional on base cars in

the U.S.

Most of the other goodies most people want — fourwheel disc

ABS brakes, cruise, power locks, cassette radio — are available

in a Preferred Equipment Package for a net of just $1,100. Heck

of a deal.

So a decently equipped Taurus lists for around $23,200, a

Sable a few hundred higher.

By all objective measures — room, ride, handling, safety

features — the 1996 Taurus/Sable represents solid improvement

over its ground-breaking predecessors. It continues to provide

worthy competition for what I consider to be the top family

cars, the Chrysler LH line.

But everything hinges on the public's response to the

Taurus/Sable styling. The dice have been tossed. Whether they come

up sevens or snake-eyes is up to you.

Freelance journalist Jim Kenzie prepared this report based on

driving experiences with a vehicle provided by the automaker.

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