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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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"
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
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
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.