This time, Ford's Taurus is really back

Ford’s venerable Taurus family sedan retired in 2006 from its sales wars with old rivals Toyota Camry and Honda Accord with all the decisiveness and conviction of Brett Favre walking away from the NFL.

The company thought the car’s image, battered by years of service in daily rental fleets, was as tired as Favre’s body. But then-new Ford president and CEO Alan Mulally was aghast to discover that his predecessor had killed what, in Mulally’s view, was the bull that laid the golden egg for Ford.

So for 2008, the company performed a quick face-lift on the Taurus’ would-be replacement, the forgettable Five-Hundred, and began hurriedly gluing “Taurus” badges on the cars as a stop-gap to assuage Mulally’s wrath.

Now the Taurus really is back for 2010, with a more-thoroughly refreshed model that boasts the kind of imposing visual presence that made Chrysler’s 300 a hit a few years ago. This fresh, dramatic exterior styling, a cabin sumptuous enough to make us forget the cheap interiors that infested so many recent Fords, and an astonishing coterie of high-tech widgets to satisfy even the most jaded technophile combine to promote the Taurus to the level of personal luxury car.

None of this comes for free, but with a $26,000 base price (for the SE model) that is the same as the outgoing model, the charge is not onerous. As a large, opulently equipped car, the Taurus is substantially more expensive than the popular Camry and Accord, however. Its equipment and price position it more directly against the Toyota Avalon, Buick Lucerne and even European prestige products such as the Audi A6 and its technical cousin, the Volvo S80.

That could prevent the Taurus from vying for sales honors again, once consumers get a look at the new model, predicts Joe Phillipi, president of AutoTrends Consulting.

“Also, it is only being built in one plant, which puts some constraints on Ford on how many units they can churn out,” he added.

Regardless of whether Taurus can reclaim its sales title, Ford has achieved the goal of remarkably boosting the car’s perceived quality through stylish design, thoughtful features and improved quality of the materials used. For example, the dashboard has a softly padded top. And the padding on the door panels has molded-in stitching that makes it look convincingly like real stitched leather from Gucci, but at a Target price.

An example of the kind of improvement that consumers are only likely to notice subliminally, if at all, is the reduction gaps between the car’s body panels to just 3.5 mm — a gap typically found only among luxury brands.

Achieving this in the Taurus not only confirms a high degree of precision in the manufacturing process, but it offers shoppers a visual cue that the car is well put-together. The effort put into blocking noise from reaching the cabin has paid off, with a hushed interior that benefits from solid construction, abundant sound insulation and thick glass.

“We threw at this car everything we knew about making it quiet,” observed chief engineer Pete Reyes. 

It worked, at least while cruising at highway speeds and at idle. Under acceleration, Ford’s 3.5-liter V6 engine continues to be louder and more unrefined than most of its contemporaries. It is not intrusive because of the car’s thorough insulation, but it is noticeable and is out of character with the car.

By contrast, the direct-injected twin-turbocharged version of the engine, which Ford brands “EcoBoost,” available in the SHO model, is quieter than the standard engine. Ford executives attribute this to additional sound insulation under the hood of that car, installed to suppress the diesel-like sound that is typical of direct-injected gasoline engines.

The Taurus' exterior styling can turn heads, something no Taurus since the original has accomplished. While many consumers may be skeptical of domestic products in general and the Taurus in specific, the new model’s racy styling should help Ford persuade some of them to consider the Taurus.

They will also be attracted by the car’s array of available technological infotainment and safety doo-dads. It be outfitted with a forward radar unit that lets the car automatically maintain a preset distance to cars ahead when driving in cruise control mode. It also provides a collision warning alarm if it thinks the driver is in danger of crashing into some object ahead. How many other cars in this class have that?

At the rear, the car can be equipped with two side-looking radars that scan for cross traffic when backing out of a parking space, to help avoid the annoying parking lot fender bender. This might not be a genuine safety advance, but it is surely a benefit to the driver’s mental health to avoid unnecessarily creased sheetmetal.

The Sync voice-command system for controlling iPods, cell phones and other personal devices has been a major selling point for Ford’s much less competitive Focus compact car, so it can only help the cause of a car as good as the Taurus. The potentially most significant innovation is the use of a data-over-voice cellular technology that lets the Taurus use the driver’s mobile phone to provide an automatic crash notification service. It's similar to the OnStar service, but without any monthly subscription.

Speaking of innovative connectivity options, here’s an interesting and previously overlooked detail: white iPod ports in the center console. No, they are not white to match Apple’s USB connector plug, they are white so the driver can see them down inside the otherwise black cave that is the inside of the console.

Every other car has black ports inside a black console, giving them a substantial degree of stealth. While that is helpful in the event they need to infiltrate an enemy target on a low-level bombing run, it makes them darn irritating to use when regular people want to plug in their iPods. Noticing this and deciding to do something about it demonstrates the dedication of the Taurus team to improve customers’ experience with the auto, even in ways they may not have realized they wanted.

On that note, one way they might like to improve the Taurus would be to slim down the enormous center console. Ford marketers explained that having a massive console separating the front seats imbues the Taurus with a premium, personal car atmosphere.

But what it also does is intrude on the driver’s knee and elbow room if he wants to shift around a bit on a long drive. Worse, there is rough-edged seam between the top and bottom sections running along the side right where a driver with a 32-inch inseam might rest a knee. Doing this in the summertime while driving in shorts reveals the presence of that rough seam in an unpleasant way.

But mistakes can be corrected, as Ford’s decision to un-retire the Taurus perfectly demonstrates.

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