Ford Taurus: Tired Bull

Ford's resurrected Taurus is a far cry from its glory days, but the bland 2008 version does offer better value than its rivals

Editor's Rating:

The Good: Top safety rating, available all-wheel drive, powerful new engine

The Bad: Unexciting styling, confusing name change, no hybrid version

The Bottom Line: A bland sedan that offers better value than its rivals

Up Front

After Alan Mulally was recruited from Boeing to become Ford's (F) new CEO last year, one of the first things he did was to revive the venerable "Taurus" nameplate. The original Taurus was a revolutionary model that for five straight years in the early '90s was the best-selling car in the U.S., beating out popular Japanese midsize sedans such as the Honda (HMC) Accord and Toyota (TM) Camry. So when Mulally rechristened the slow-selling Ford Five Hundred sedan the '08 Taurus, he was hoping to capitalize on the billions of dollars in brand equity Ford had built up in the Taurus name.

But how well does the new Taurus live up to its namesake's legacy? Having test-driven one for a week, my answer is: Not very. The new Taurus is a respectable vehicle—and much improved over the Five Hundred sedan it is replacing. Ford says that in converting the Five Hundred to the Taurus it made more than 500 improvements, the most important of which was to boost the engine size. At 263 horsepower, the '08 Taurus' 3.5 liter Duratec V6 is almost 30% more powerful than the engine in the Five Hundred.

But the new Taurus is also bigger than the old Taurus—more directly comparable with models such as the Chrysler 300, the Toyota Avalon, and the Buick Lucerne than it is with top-selling mid-size sedans such as the Camry and Accord. Ford's sales pitch is that the Taurus offers the size and comfort of bigger cars such as the Avalon and Chrysler 300, at a much lower price.

The '08 Taurus's stats are impressive. It comes in two trim levels, the SEL and the Limited, both available with all-wheel drive. The SEL starts at $23,995 with front-wheel and $25,845 with all-wheel drive, the Limited at $27,595 with front-wheel and $29,445 with all-wheel drive. Ford likes to note that the least expensive all-wheel-drive version of the Chrysler 300 tops $30,000.

However, the Taurus' price can top $35,000 if you load it up. Some of the pricier options include a navigation system ($1,995), rear seat entertainment system ($995), moonroof ($895), 18-inch chrome wheels ($695), and traction and stability control ($495).

The new Taurus is slightly wider and 7.5 inches longer than the '08 Accord (the biggest Accord ever) and more than a foot longer than the '08 Camry. That extra size gives the Taurus slightly more rear-seat legroom and a far bigger trunk than any of its rivals. In fact, at 21.2 cubic feet, the trunk is around 50% bigger than those of the Camry, Avalon, Accord, and Chrysler 300.

Despite its bigger engine, the Taurus is nearly 10% more fuel-efficient than the Five Hundred was, almost matching the mileage of Camry and Accord. With front-wheel drive, the '08 Taurus is rated to get 18 mpg in the city and 28 on the highway (17/24 mpg with all-wheel drive)—which is almost as good as a front-wheel drive, V6 powered Accord (19 city/29 highway,) or Camry (19/28). In 303 miles of sedate mixed driving, I got 19.8 mpg in the all-wheel drive version of the new Taurus. However, there's no hybrid Taurus to compete with the Camry Hybrid.

The '08 Taurus also earned the highest possible safety ratings. It was rated "five stars" by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in every category, and is a "Top Safety Pick" of the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety.

A big doubt about the '08 Taurus is how confused consumers will be by the name change (further muddying the waters, Ford also renamed its Freestyle crossover vehicle the Taurus X). It's unclear if the new Taurus sedan will outsell the Five Hundred, let alone remotely rival the Taurus's glory years, when annual sales topped 400,000 units.

Ford has only sold 17,912 new Tauruses since the model arrived in dealerships this summer, including a mere 3,562 in the month of September. Meanwhile, it sold 34,602 Five Hundreds through September (half as many as in the same period last year) including 668 in September.

Also, the old Taurus' legacy was less than storied in its later years. As recently as 2006, Ford was still selling the old Taurus to rental car fleets, even though the model had been withdrawn from the consumer market because it was so badly outdated. Ford can only hope that consumers will forget that sad final chapter.

Behind the Wheel

Slipping behind the wheel of the new Taurus is a pleasurable experience. The seats are set higher than in most sedans, which may make headroom tight for tall drivers but gives the car the feel of an SUV or crossover vehicle. I found the seats comfortable. They're padded to the point of seeming almost over-stuffed, but they have a firm, supportive feel. They reminded me of a couch I once bought at Maurice Villency, an upscale Manhattan furniture store.

The bigger V6 makes the Taurus quick for a family sedan. I timed it at 7.6 seconds in accelerating from 0 to 60. There's plenty of power when you punch the gas at highway speed. As with most new models these days, Ford has packed the Taurus' cabin with sound-deadening material, and it's very quiet.

There's nothing sporty about the way the Taurus handles, however. It only comes with an automatic transmission. And it handles like a solid but unexciting family sedan.

One of the new Taurus selling points is the size and flexibility of its cargo-hauling capabilities. The rear seats fold down, creating a large open space consisting of the huge trunk and the rear of the cabin. The back of the front passenger seat also folds down, adding to the available cargo space.

Pay more for the Taurus Limited, and the cabin has many nice touches that separate the car from a garden-variety sedan. The seats are trimmed in leather, and there's dark, wood-like trim on the door and dash. The pedals are power-adjustable and have a memory function (part of a $475 convenience package that includes a backup alarm). When you exit the car at night, little spotlights come on in the bottoms of the rearview mirrors, lighting up the area around the front doors.

However, I'm not a fan of the car's overall styling. Ford tried to jazz up the new Taurus' exterior with touches such as adding little vents to its front flanks. But it still looks bland to me. Over the years, the old Taurus' "jelly bean" and in later years "ovoid" styling was always distinctive. The new Taurus looks staid by comparison.

Inside the new Taurus, there are too many seams and creases in the dash and front door panels for my taste. It makes the interior look junky compared with, say, the interior of a Camry.

Buy It Or Bag It?

Ford is correct in saying that the new Taurus offers excellent value compared with its main competitors, with its roomy cabin, large trunk, decent mileage, and available all-wheel drive at a lower price.

The new Taurus merits a look if you're considering buying one of the more popular full-size or mid-size sedans. The '08 Taurus' average selling price is just $25,167, according to the Power Information Network (PIN). Surprisingly, that makes the new Taurus slightly less expensive than the new Honda Accord, which sells for an average of $25,785 (though more than the '08 Camry, which sells for $22,109 if you don't include the hybrid version).

The new Taurus is also cheaper than the Avalon ($32,582), the Buick Lucerne ($29,584), and the Chrysler 300 ($28,559), according to PIN (which, like Business Week, is a unit of the McGraw-Hill Cos. (MHP)).

The problem with the Taurus is that there's nothing compelling enough about it to lure buyers away from Hondas, Toyotas, and Chryslers. It's too bland-looking. It's a perfectly good car, but unless you're buying mainly on price, or only buy from domestic manufacturers, or really need all-wheel drive, it's a hard sell.

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