The interior of the 1999 Ford Taurus.Controversial for its ellipsoid shape when it was introduced in 1995 as a '96 model, the Taurus, as well as its Sable sibling from Mercury, has become as familiar as leftover meatloaf.That's what happens when you get a million of them out there in traffic.But more important, with a year to go before an extensive overhaul, the Taurus has fallen behind some of the newer midsize offerings in mechanical sophistication, general refinement and all-around driveability.As I've said before, I think the new Honda Accord is now the segment-defining product in the midsize sedan class: top quality, outstanding engineering, excellent road manners and finally enough room for five.In contrast, the Taurus feels dated.Key point here, folks -- feels dated, as distinct from looks dated. The Taurus and Sable provoked instant polarization among beholders -- some loved the cars, some hated them, with a no-man's land in between -- in 1995. If the shape has become familiar, I think it also manages to stand out against the no-risk exteriors that have become the standard for this class.Check the new Accord, or the Toyota Camry. Each wears a recognizable corporate face, but the rest of the exterior treatment is as distinctive as oatmeal.In this respect, at least, the Taurus is still a bold design statement, and Ford deserves high marks for bringing a new interpretation to the staid realm of family sedans.Remember, that's exactly what the original Taurus -- a car that divided Ford into the equivalent of two armed and mutually hostile camps -- did in 1986.So even though the slope of the roof line makes rear-seat head room a little snug for anyone more than 6 feet tall, I don't see the overall design as the problem.The problem is a mechanical package that started out as merely adequate and has since been overtaken by the competition.Let us consider, for example, the 3.0-liter Vulcan V6 engine.It gives the Taurus a V6 as its base powerplant, as distinct from all the standard four-cylinder engines towing midsize sedans around out there, the Accord included.But that extra pair of cylinders d oesn't keep the Vulcan V6 from being an uninspiring propulsion device, noisier than a good many of its competitors and, at 145 horsepower, tepid in the power department.Some contrasts: Honda's new 3.0-liter Accord V6 generates 200 horsepower; the Camry's 3.0-liter V6 is rated at 194 horsepower; even the Chevy Lumina's equally uninspired 3.1-liter V6 manages to pump up 160 horsepower.More significant, the 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine offered in the Accord LX is rated 5 horsepower higher than the Vulcan V6 and is hitched to a car that weighs at least 300 pounds less than the Taurus.To be fair, Ford does offer an upgrade engine for the Taurus. Derived from the Contour's excellent 2.5-liter Duratec V6, the 3.0-liter version has dual overhead cams, 24 valves and the other high tech attributes of a modern engine.Even with its greater displacement, the 3.0-liter Duratec doesn't pr oduce noteworthy acceleration in this large midsize sedan, and its horsepower has diminished for 19 99, from 200 to 185 -- probably as a result of tighter emissions tuning. This, at a time when competitors keep extracting more power. The back end of the new Ford Taurus.The four-speed automatic transmission allied with the Vulcan V6 in my test car was also a source of discontent, if not actual irritation.An automatic transmission is the only choice in a Taurus, and like all contemporary automatics, its operations are computer controlled.It seems this computer is just a little slow-witted, taking a little longer than usual to process driver throttle movements that might be classified as out of the ordinary.For example, full-throttle acceleration up to, say, 40 m.p.h. -- followed by an abrupt lift -- produced a distinct lag before the computer allowed the transmission to upshift.I could practically hear that tiny electronic brain articulating its bewilderment: "Duh, what the heck's he doin' now?"Other elements of the Taurus mechanical package, ride and handling, have stood up better than the Vulcan V6 engine-transmission package.On the other hand, neither of these dynamic traits rates as outstanding.The Taurus does a better-than-average job of ironing out uneven pavement, and the suspension components seem to be well isolated from the passenger cabin, an important part of quiet operation.However, on really nasty surfaces, such as washboard sections of gravel road, the shock absorber damping seems to have trouble keeping up with the movements of the springs, suggesting the suspension will smooth out isolated lumps, bumps and potholes but could become upset when they occur in rapid sequence.Like basic ride quality, the Taurus' straight-line stability is very good at all speeds. However, it's a bit more reluctant than its newer competitors in quick avoidance maneuvers, and its steering lacks the precise feel -- with its attendant sense of control -- delivered by the Accord and Camry. Well, if the Taurus is comparatively a less satisfying drive now than it was four years ago, it does retain some strong suits in interior design.For example, the flip-fold center console, with its graduated trio of cup-holders, is still one of the niftier installations around.When the console and center armrest are stowed, there's enough room for a center passenger up front. Unfold the seat bottom, and the three cup-holders are revealed, along with a storage compartment.I did learn that only one of the cup-holders is deep enough to keep a soft drink from tipping over during medium to hard acceleration. You can imagine how I discovered this, but I mark that down as my fault, not theirs.Perhaps an even stronger argument for the Taurus lies in the realm of passive safety. Like the Windstar minivan, the Taurus has a double five-star rating in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration frontal crash testing, which is as good as it gets.What this means is that you or your passenger have a pretty good chance of walking away from a frontal crash, and Ford claims the Taurus sedan and wagon are the only under-$20,000 vehicles so distinguished.Which brings us, conveniently, to price.As you will perhaps recall, Ford got a little greedy with the first-year pricing for the Taurus and Sable, anticipating a consumer response that didn't quite materialize.Since then, both divisions have been retrenching on price, and Ford also has kept the Atlanta and Chicago factories busy by devoting about half of its Taurus production to low-profit fleet sales.Accord fleet sales, in contrast, run less than 5 percent. Draw your own conclusions.At $17,995, including destination charges, the basic Taurus LX is about $1,000 cheaper than last year. At $18,995, the SE sedan has been reduced $1,080, and the SE wagon is down $1,840 at $19,995.That's still well north of the basic Accord DX sedan, and you could bolt yourself into a new Dodge Intrepid for about the same money. But it's competitive with other Accord models, as well as the rest of the midsize universe.If the Taurus had enjoyed such competitive pricing from the outset, who knows what sales it might have achieved.But in the twilight of the current design, due for a major overhaul next year, price is the only lever left to pull. The Taurus hasn't lost its good looks, but its attractive exterior covers an otherwise average car.SPECS Rating: 2 WHEELS Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, midsize sedanKey competitors: Chevrolet Lumina, Dodge Stratus, Honda Accord, Mazda 626, Toyota CamryBase price: $18,995Price as tested: $19,600Standard equipment: Dual air bags, air-conditioning, AM-FM-cassette audio, power windows, power mirrors, power locks, cruise control, tilt steering, keyless remote entrySpecifications: (manufacturer's data) Engine: 145-horsepower, 3.0-liter V6 EPA fuel econ.: 19 m.p.g. city, 28 m.p.g highway Curb weight: 3,329 pounds Wheelbase: 108.5 inches Length: 197.5 inches Width: 73.0 inches Height: 55.1 inches Where assembled: Chicago, Ill.