Never has a car so captivated the motoring public.And never has a car so angered those same folks only a few years later. Such has been the plight of the Ford Taurus, launched for the 1986 model year, when General Motors Corp. owned the midsize car market. Along came Taurus, a significant machine because Ford bet the farm on it. GM was redesigning its midsize cars. For some strange reason, GM decided motorists relished midsize coupes more than midsize sedans. So GM focused on new two-door-- rather than four-door--cars. When you own the market for midsize cars, as GM did, you do what you damn well please. In the midst of GM's W-body midsize coupe--Buick Regal, Chevrolet Lumina, Oldsmobile Cutlass and Pontiac Grand Prix--campaign, Ford brought a pair of Taurus prototypes to the Chicago Auto Show in early '85--one with a traditional grille, one with a floating Ford oval where the grille normally would be found. Auto-show visitors overwhelmingly favored the car without the grille and that's the version Ford built. That December, Ford brought out a four-door Taurus sedan and a Mercury companion called Sable to replace the Ford LTD and Mercury Marquis. Most industry observers felt Ford had made a reckless move. Overlooked, however, was the reaction Chicago Auto Show visitors gave the grille-less Taurus. After all, showgoers could have vetoed both prototypes and told Ford to keep the LTD. After a few months of getting used to the odd-looking Taurus, customers ran to showrooms. GM scrambled to bring out fresh, new midsize sedans, but it was too late. Taurus had become a household word and, by the 1992 calendar year, became the best-selling car in the industry, unseating the Honda Accord, which held the title from 1989 through 1991. Oddly, GM, as well as Chrysler, celebrated the Taurus victory because it deposed a Japanese nameplate at a time when Japanese cars were perceived as superior to U.S. makes. Taurus' sales victory gave all U.S. cars instant credibility. Of note, Accord had taken the title away from the Ford Escort, the top seller in 1988. Taurus held the title from 1992 through 1996, before the Toyota Camry stepped up to win the crown the last two years. Taurus was a success story. Unfortunately, Ford didn't handle success very well. It figured that if the public liked a radical-looking sedan in 1986, they'd welcome an even more radical redesign in 1996. Wrong. The '96 Taurus was too curvy. And the taillamps drooped, as if the clay on the concept melted and no one bothered to prop it up. The car looked smaller than the model it replaced at a time when people were demanding bigger cars. Inside, most controls were housed in an oval pod in the center of the rounded and curvy instrument panel. There wasn't a straight line to be found in or out of the car. While Ford poked fun at Accord and Camry as bland looking, it found that the more dramatic the styling, the quicker it grew old. Accord and Camry may be bland, but you don't have to buy a new one every two or three years to keep in fashion. For the 2000 model year, Taurus will be redesigned, with new front and rear-end treatments as well as a cabin overhaul. Taurus will look very much like the compact Ford Contour, a pleasantly conservative sedan. More on that machine later. For now, we focus on the 1999 Taurus SE, the "last of" for the current generation. In testing the SE, we found that while styling has taken much of the blame for Taurus falling behind Camry and Accord in sales, it isn't the sole reason. Perhaps Ford has focused too much on Taurus styling at the expense of updating the engineering. The Taurus SE feels too heavy and cumbersome. Camry and Accord may win no beauty crowns, but they certainly will walk away with the congeniality award. Accord and Camry are limber and nimble compared with a more cumbersome Taurus. You feel lots of weight in the wheel. The steering system is slow to respond to wheel input. The 3-liter, 160-horsepower V-6 strains to get the vehicle in motion. The optional 3-liter, 185-h.p., 24-valve V-6 would have fared better. Then, too, the seats are overstuffed and take up too much cabin room. You feel cramped, almost as if in a compact sedan. Curvy lines dominate. There isn't a flat spot to place a pencil. Storage space is at a premium. The instrument pod housing all the controls seemed space age when introduced in 1996; now it looks confusing. Taurus needs to get slimmer and trimmer inside and out. It needs a V-6 with more muscle to move the bulk with less effort, or maybe just less bulk to move. And the power-steering system needs a shot of adrenalin to allow for more nimble maneuvering. We hope the 2000 Taurus will provide more interior room, more storage compartments and softer, more comfortable seats. And whoever was in charge of curves in the current generation Taurus should be sent to a room with a ruler and made to draw straight lines until he comes back to his senses. The SE we tested starts at $18,445. But options quickly add up. A "comfort" group at $1,500 adds six-way power driver's seat, air conditioning, keyless entry and something called a light group. Ford loves to lump "groups" onto the sticker without explaining what secretive features are included. With assorted other options and freight, the sticker came to $23,245. The 2000 Taurus will be watched closely, by Ford and its dealers, some of whom complain that Ford has become a truck company--meaning pickups, sport-utility vehicles and mini-vans. A host of variations such as the Explorer Sport Trac for 2001, an Explorer SUV with a pickup bed, are planned for the near future. Dealers say when customers walk in the door, it's easy to sell them a Ford truck, but that there's no whiz-bang, gotta-get-my-hands-on-that-thing car in the lineup. The 2001 Thunderbird will be such a vehicle, but only 20,000 will be available nationwide. And when a customer drives to the showroom to admire the Thunderbird but can't afford the $35,000 plus options and premium price tag, what other car does Ford have to show them that will create excitement?
|Jim Mateja||chicagotribune.com||March 21, 1999|
|Tony Swan||Detroit Newspapers||October 15, 1998|
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