EXPERT REVIEW

The Detroit Newspapers's view


A smarmy host with slicked back hair and a small wrench earring could introduce a car each week with self-esteem issues and then do a makeover.

The first makeover candidate could have been the Ford Five Hundred.

“First thing we’re going to change is the name,” the show’s host would explain. “Five Hundred? What were they thinking? Does that even mean anything? All-purpose bathroom cleaners have numbers, not cars. But we’re not going to stop there…”

Indeed. The car formerly known as the Five Hundred has been revamped as the all-new 2008 Ford Taurus, with a more aggressive face, enhanced powertrain and a host of other improvements. It’s a car that looks better, performs better and rides quieter than before.

Ford Motor Co. touts 500-plus improvements made to the sedan with all the fanfare of reality TV. Most are not that exciting, though all of the changes do create one question: Were Five Hundred customers shortchanged?

Yes, they were. The Taurus, which is in showrooms now, is a significantly better vehicle. Even the name suggests A-list aspirations instead of obscure references to the ’60s Galaxie 500 — the Five Hundred’s namesake.

Ford resurrected the Taurus nameplate in January, just a few months after killing the once-revolutionary midsize sedan. It was a move to cash in on the equity built through the 20 years of Taurus sedans.

While the new Taurus holds the bones of the Five Hundred — namely the sturdy Volvo S80 underpinnings — it still falls short of striking a pose as dramatic as other large sedans, such as the Chrysler 300. But what it lacks in looks, it makes up for in a comfortable and quiet ride.

Improved ride

Stand in front of a Taurus and you’ll see how it’s starting to step out of the Five Hundred’s shadow.

The new front end is dramatic and powerful. Ford’s signature three-bar grille draws the Taurus into the family and adds machismo to the wispy wire mesh grille. The new front fascia gives it a more substantial look.

Most of the other changes to the Five Hundred’s bland exterior feel like small brush strokes. New taillights, dual exhaust tips (instead of one), chrome accents to the door handles and trendy chrome side vents adorn the Taurus like so much costume jewelry. It’s the right direction and gives the sedan some sparkle but falls short of addressing the bubbly profile.

But the Taurus will grab your attention once you sit behind the wheel.

Gone is the underpowered 3-liter V-6 and continuously variable transmission. Ford’s CVT, a gutless — I mean, gearless — transmission used belts and pulleys to improve fuel economy. But it also made the car sound like poorly played bagpipes by keeping the engine at higher-than-normal sound revs.

In is the muscle-bound 3.5-liter V-6 with six-speed automatic transmission. The 3.5-liter V-6, making its way into many Ford products, is smooth and powerful. It creates 263-horsepower and 249 pound-feet of torque, a jump of 62 horses over its predecessor.

The additional power doesn’t hurt its fuel economy. My all-wheel-drive test vehicle averaged 22 miles per gallon in city and highway driving, on par with the 2008 EPA numbers of 17 mpg city and 24 mpg highway for the AWD vehicle and 18 mpg city and 28 mpg highway for a front-wheel drive model.

Ford also changed the way the engine is mounted in the vehicle, moving it from the front subframe to the body with hydraulic mounts. Don’t know what that means? Allow me: It cuts vibrations drivers feel.

I drove the Five Hundred and new Taurus back to back. The improved ride is noticeable. The Taurus glides over bumps and rides smoothly. Its handling at highway speeds is excellent for a large sedan, with good feedback from the variable speed assisted rack-and-pinion steering. However, at low speeds, especially around corners, the steering feels loose and disconnected from the road.

Lots of room

The interior is as plush as the Five Hundred, comfortable and roomy. Ford added a new instrument cluster and there are lots of storage nooks. The center console is wide enough for the driver and front seat passenger to cop elbow space, and the secondary storage bin on the top of the dash is useful for storing items like cell phone rechargers and maps — in case you opt out of buying the navigation system.

And there’s lots of room — the most in the large sedan class. One technique dealers are using to sell the Taurus is asking a customer to set the driver’s seat to the most comfortable position. Then sit behind the driver and see how much room there is.

Ford has added scads of sound-deadening materials and even filled the car’s A-pillars (the supports that brace the windshield) with expandable foam pellets to cut outside noises. Wind noise is nil, even at 80 mph, and road noise is absent — giving the Taurus a chillingly quiet ride.

Come October, Ford will add its Sync system to help fill that quiet void. The system allows drivers to connect personal music devices and cell phones to the car in seamless manner. Its five-star crash rating from the U.S. government and the Top Safety Pick from the private Insurance Institute for Highway Safety demonstrate its safety status.

Unlike small cars, the Taurus has the weight (3,741 pounds) to hold its own in an accident. Electronic stability control is optional on the front-wheel drive model and standard on the all-wheel drive model.

Outside of Detroit, a lot of people see cars as a mode of transportation, not a lifestyle.

Look at the top-selling redesigned 2007 Toyota Camry — it’s not a stunning vehicle. It’s a dependable buddy that sits quietly in the driveway until it shuttles the owner to work. Many people want something that they only think about when they put the key in the ignition and start it. Other than that, they just want it to run, provide decent fuel economy, have enough power to merge onto the highway and enough space to carry their friends and family, and offer a pleasant, quiet ride.

The 2008 Taurus does all that and more. It doesn’t need to star in a reality TV show — it just needs people to test-drive it.

2008 Ford Taurus

Type: A front-wheel drive large sedan. All-wheel drive is available.

Retail price*: $23,995-

Engine: 3.5-liter V-6.

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

EPA mileage:

FWD: 18 mpg city / 28 mpg hwy

AWD: 17 mpg city / 24 mpg hwy

Notes: Well-priced sedan, with roomy, plush interior. *Includes shipping

Report card

Overall: *** 1/2

Performance: Good: Ride and handling good; powerful engine offers strong straight-line performance

Exterior: Fair: Stylish, but not stunning.

Interior: Excellent: Plush and comfy, with plenty of passenger room and storage space.

Safety: Excellent: Five-star crashing all around. Front and side air bags and antilock brakes.

Pros: Quiet, well-riding vehicle with solid performance.

Cons: Sedate exterior.

Grading scale

Excellent: **** Good: *** Fair: ** Poor: *

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