The Kennedy brothers are alive. The Berlin Wall is still standing, Toyota never became a household name and the Ford Taurus is still the best-selling car in America.
These are the good makings of a science-fiction novel, plotting an alternative timeline to our own. That’s what came to mind when I first saw the 2013 Taurus SHO: Its designers seem to have been living out their own parallel reality.
It’s big, solid and unabashedly American, ignoring nearly all the design fads found in today’s sports sedans. An automotive Polaroid of what could have been.
The original Taurus had its heyday in the mid-1980s, the runaway hit for Ford that was innovative yet conservative. Aerodynamic for its time, it had flush door handles and no grill. Clever, but decidedly unflashy, a smart car for the masses. Call it trickle-down autonomics.
It continued as the U.S.’s best-selling car into the next decade, until a bungled redesign helped the Toyota Camry capture the mantle in the late 1990s.
Flash forward to today: The 2013 model year is available with four and six cylinders, with front and all-wheel-drive. Starting at around $27,400, it’s got a grill and some flash. But it’s only a niche sedan in the Ford lineup.
The most interesting model is the face-lifted SHO, which stands for super high output. At $40,000 and with 365 horsepower, it’s the “sporty” Taurus, only available in AWD.
It’s got a heck of an engine, the 3.5-liter, twin-turbo, EcoBoost V-6 with 350 pound-feet of torque. It runs on 91 octane and gets 17 miles per gallon in the city and 25 on the highway.
The SHO doesn’t look sporty in any conventional sense. It carries all its weight up top. The beltline is high, the side windows are small, and the pillar which bisects the front and rear doors is absurdly thick. The whole thing is best described as stocky.
Especially when you put it next to the Audi A7 or the four-door BMW 6 Series Gran Coupe recently shown at the New York auto show. Those slinky sedans have impossibly low centers of gravity and roofs which slope sharply downward, making for sexy silhouettes but little headroom.
The Taurus’s roof only starts tapering behind the rear passenger seats. Such styling is resolutely old-school, but those riding in the back will be grateful for it. A full-size car, it will fit five passengers, and the capacious trunk is big enough to fit a couple of beer kegs stood on end.
The 2013 model has a new upright, more attitudinal grill filled with black mesh with the Ford logo floating in the center.
The SHO commands nearly as much road presence as a SUV. It speaks of authority and power, and is vaguely cop-like. That makes sense, as Ford’s new Police Interceptor is Taurus-based, and will replace the venerable Crown Victoria as the vehicle most likely to make you hit the brakes when speeding.
My pre-production test car was painted in a beguiling “green gem metallic,” which shifted shades depending on the light, a hue well suited to the SHO’s blunt shape.
It also came with optional 20-inch aluminum wheels and performance-geared Michelin tires. Its grip was good even on wet surfaces, and the rubber handled well during emergency lane changes at highway speeds.
The new Taurus also gets better brakes. The last time I tested a SHO, the rotors were pouring smoke after ten minutes of hard driving. Now they’re hearty and resilient.
Still, a sports car this is not. The SHO does not feel buttoned up in the corners, nor does it suck down to the road at speed. The ride is bouncy, like sitting on an over exuberant pony. Crest a rise in the road and there’s an uncomfortable sensation of floating before the suspension finally resettles.
The steering is lousy, hazy and overly boosted by electronic assist.
This is not a brother to the Mustang, nor a riposte to the Dodge Challenger or Chevy Camaro. It has no muscle-car pretentions. Rather it brings to mind the latest Chrysler 300, a sedan which also feels like a piece of Americana lifted from the last century.
The 300’s high performance version, the SRT8, is a lot more serious about speed, with a 6.4-liter Hemi V-8 with 470 hp. What’s more, the Chrysler’s interior is warmer and more bespoke.
The inside of the Taurus is efficient if brooding. The dash board extends into two separate hoods, like those over a kitchen range, that hover over the gauges and the glove box.
The dashboard is high and the seating position upright, giving the impression you’re ensconced in a deep cockpit. The center console is a swath of black lacquer, buttons nestled inside.
This fall, Ford will also be offering the 2013 Fusion, a midsize sedan more in tune with modern car design. The front end looks like an Aston Martin; the roof is sleek and sloping. It will also be offered as hybrid and plug-in models. Expect the Fusion to cannibalize a measure of Taurus sales.
In some alternate reality, the Taurus might be a hit. But in this one, it just feels out of place.
The 2013 Ford Taurus SHO AWD at a Glance
Engine: 3.5-liter, twin turbo EcoBoost V-6 with 365 horsepower and 350 pound-feet of torque.
Transmission: Six-speed automatic.
Speed: 0 to 60 mph in about 5.7 seconds.
Gas mileage per gallon: 17 city; 25 highway.
Price as tested: $42,995.
Best feature: That authoritative front end.
Worst feature: Bouncy ride.
Target buyer: The driver who wants a full-size sedan with presence.
(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Today’s Muse highlights include: Martin Gayford reviews Ron Mueck’s art show in London: Rich Jaroslovsky on Kindle.