Cars.comparison: Family Haulers

SUVs and minivans are popular among families, but if you'd rather travel in a sedan there are several capable of family duty. One of the most significant sedans is the redesigned 2010 Ford Taurus, which takes on the Nissan Maxima and Toyota Avalon in this comparison.

 = Category winner
The Contenders
2010 Ford Taurus Limited AWD2009 Nissan Maxima 3.5 SV2009 Toyota Avalon XLS
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$33,620$32,860 $32,145
Price as tested
Love it or leave it
Love it. Save an odd cut line in the rear quarter-panel that makes it look like a wayward double-wide Costco shopping cart dinged you, the Taurus looks sharp. It makes both its predecessor and the Avalon seem boring. Love it. The Maxima's boomerang-shaped headlights take some getting used to, but the car's overall profile has a forward-leaning stance that befits Nissan's "four-door sports car" marketing.Leave it. The Avalon's styling was on the bland side even when this car debuted. It's an inoffensive look, but it doesn't make you want to take it home, either.
The Taurus couples a smooth six-speed automatic with a large V-6, but our all-wheel-drive test car's 4,224-pound curb weight — around 640 pounds more than either competitor — keeps passing power modest. It's easy to see why Nissan's bread-and-butter V-6 wins award after award. In the Maxima it's paired with a responsive continuously variable automatic transmission, resulting in snappy acceleration.The Avalon has a strong V-6, but its six-speed automatic can be a bit slow to downshift. Still, there should be enough power to satisfy all but the most impatient leadfoots. Highway acceleration is impressive.
Gas mileage (city/highway mpg)
The optional all-wheel-drive system lowers gas mileage; front-wheel-drive models are rated as high as 18/28.
The Maxima's decent gas mileage estimates are diminished slightly by the fact that the car requires premium gas; the others take regular.
The Avalon's impressive gas mileage estimates show you can get midsize-sedan fuel economy with the roominess of a large car.
Ride quality
The Taurus' suspension absorbs bumps well and avoids the Avalon's somewhat floaty feeling. It's a good combination and something we wouldn't expect given the overly firm ride in the Taurus' sibling, the Lincoln MKS.The Maxima offers good refinement, but the suspension hews to sportiness over comfort. Still, given how well the car handles, it's impressive Nissan was able to preserve ride comfort. The Avalon's modus operandi is ride comfort: It soaks up potholes and highway expansion joints with aplomb. Although it doesn't feel as boat-like as Detroit's big cars of yore, it could be more planted.
The Taurus trades its predecessor's roominess — a veritable gymnasium's worth — for sleeker styling both inside and out. While there's ample room, you can't stretch out like before. Backseat space is only OK.Nissan spent its draft picks on cabin quality and driving dynamics; roominess is its weakness. Like the Taurus, the Maxima doesn't have a lot of room to stretch out. The backseat is adequate — nothing more. You want room? The Avalon has it. Tons of it. There's space in both rows to stretch out, and the backseat even reclines 10 degrees. If you're the type to steal an occasional lunch-hour snooze in the parking garage, pick the Avalon.
Seat comfort
Our test car had high-rent leather, but you might find that there's too much lumbar support in the backrest — even when it's dialed all the way back.
The Maxima has a respectable grade of optional leather, and the seats are supportive. We're not such fans of the rock-hard head restraints, though, and the available driver's-seat cushion extender creates a crumb-catching gap.
Our test car's leather seats were roomy and well-cushioned, though we could feel a seam in the backrest at times. We're pretty tough when grading seats for thigh support, but these make the grade.
Useful technology
Even our tester, which didn't have the intuitive touch-screen navigation system, had no shortage of user-friendly technology. Ford's Sync system is still the quickest way to grab tracks off your iPod, and other features — from the adaptive cruise control's collision warning alert to the customizable cabin lights — are well-executed.Nissan and its luxury brand, Infiniti, have a good thing going with their navigation systems. They're easy to use, especially in critical functions like scrolling the map and inputting a destination. Our test car badly needs the graphics upgrade that some of Nissan's later products have. A USB/iPod interface is optional. A far cry from the touch-screens in Toyotas of a more recent vintage, the Avalon's navigation system looks crude and uses a rickety control pad near the gearshift. An auxiliary jack is standard, but a USB input for full iPod integration isn't offered.
Trunk room
Though smaller than the old Taurus' trunk, the new model's is still ginormous at 20.1 cubic feet. A split-folding backseat is standard. If you ever needed to go golfing with three buddies … and then tailgate a football game, this is the trunk you want.If the trunk wars were a gunfight, Nissan brought a spork. The Maxima's trunk measures a puny 14.2 cubic feet. A split-folding backseat is standard, but certain trim levels only offer a small pass-through.The Avalon's trunk measures an unremarkable 14.4 cubic feet — a rusty shovel, perhaps, to Nissan's cafeteria cutlery and Ford's sandbagged artillery outpost. The backseat doesn't fold, and only offers a center pass-through.
Crash tests and safety features
The Taurus has the distinction of being the only car here recognized as a 2010 Top Safety Pick using the stricter Insurance Institute for Highway Safety standards. Standard safety features include six airbags, antilock brakes and an electronic stability system.In IIHS testing, the Maxima earned top frontal and side crash-test scores, an Acceptable rating in the roof-crush test and a Marginal score in the rear-impact test. Like the Taurus, the Maxima has six airbags, antilock brakes and an electronic stability system standard.The Avalon received top scores in front, side and rear impacts, but it hasn't been subjected to the new roof-crush test as of publication. Seven airbags — including a driver's knee airbag — are standard; antilock brakes and an electronic stability system are too.
Overall value
In its base form, the Taurus is very affordable for a big car; it starts at just over $25,000. It's more modestly equipped than base models of the Maxima and Avalon, but it comes with the essentials and undercuts the Avalon, the next cheapest model, by more than $2,500. Base Maximas come well equipped with features like a power moonroof, dual-zone automatic air conditioning, power front seats and a six-CD audio system. You pay for them, though, as the base 3.5 S's $30,000-plus starting price is higher than base versions of the Taurus and Avalon. The base Avalon XL is nearly as well equipped as a base Maxima but for a few thousand dollars less. Still, it's not the deal that the Taurus is.
Editors' choice
Though the Taurus isn't quite as roomy as the Avalon, it more than makes up the difference with its composed ride, technological features and huge trunk. Plus, it's available with all-wheel drive, something the others don't offer. The sporty Maxima is the clear choice for moms and dads who want a little excitement in their sedan, but its lack of space — both in the cabin and trunk — hurt it. The Avalon delivers a good blend of cabin roominess and fuel efficiency, but its relatively small trunk and anonymous styling are strikes against it.
© 12/1/09
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