The Rerunning of the Bulls
ATTENTION, please: the winner of the 2008 Do-Over and Do-Again Award (known as “The Do-Do”) is the 2008 Ford Taurus and Taurus X.
The Do-Do recognizes the automaker who tries the hardest to compensate for not having taken full advantage of the opportunity when originally introducing a vehicle. And the Taurus and Taurus X were the odds-on favorites to win the Do-Do this year — most likely because I created the award with these very same vehicles in mind.
To understand the significance of this prestigious (aren’t they all?) award, it may be helpful to review a few basics.
Consumers who thought the Taurus was dead are right. It was replaced by the Ford Five Hundred, which was introduced as a 2005 model (though in fact Ford continued to turn out Tauri until October 2006 for the low-margin fleet market). At the same time, Ford introduced a crossover-wagon variant called the Freestyle.
But when the Five Hundred didn’t catch on, Ford decided to try an increasingly popular tactic: resurrecting the name of a well-known vehicle. That’s how the 2008 Five Hundred became the Taurus and the Freestyle became the Taurus X. It is unclear whether the Pinto or Mustang II names were ever considered.
A big reason Ford execs give for the name change is that “Taurus” is more familiar, but somebody apparently forgot to tell the salespeople. A late-August survey of about 300 Ford salespeople in 27 markets found 81 percent were not consistently calling the new vehicles “Taurus,” according to CNW Marketing Research of Bandon, Ore. About 20 percent admitted they always called the Taurus the Five Hundred.
In fairness, this is not just a name game. A lot of improvements have been made to the 2008 Taurus. Still, Ford redefines elasticity in the way it stretches the point with ads that declare the car to be the “all-new Taurus.”
There are two Taurus sedan models, the SEL and the Limited. Each is available with either front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. The front-wheel drive SEL is $23,995, which includes plenty of standard equipment; one could stop there and not feel deprived. The Limited is fancier, with features including leather upholstery and a price starting at $27,595.
For the Taurus X, there are three trim levels: SEL, Eddie Bauer and Limited. The SEL is $27,365; the Eddie Bauer is $29,720 and the Limited is $30,700.
Those who face snow-covered hills can get all-wheel-drive versions of either the Taurus or the X for another $1,850. I tested a Taurus Limited with all-wheel drive. It had a base price of $29,445 and options including an easy-to-use navigation system ($1,995) and electronic stability control ($495), bringing the total to $32,605.
Later I tried a Taurus X Limited with all-wheel drive and a base price of $32,550. But Ford loaded that car up with options, including a navigation system, DVD player ($995) and the Limited Ultimate Package with a power liftgate and heated second-row seats ($825). The total came to $38,160.
The exteriors have been reworked, with the most noticeable change being the three-bar chrome grille that is becoming the shiny new face of Ford. When the Five Hundred and Freestyle were introduced, some top Ford execs worried that they looked too conservative, and this grille was the antidote.
There are no meaningful changes in the exterior or interior dimensions, so the sedan still has a huge expanse of legroom in the second row. In the Taurus X wagon, the second row legroom comes close to matching the sedan, but only when the second-row seat — which moves forward and backward 3.5 inches — is all the way back. Unfortunately when the second row is in its rearmost position, the third row is best suited to a small child.
Access to the third row is made easier because the second-row seats can be easily flipped forward. There is even a power seat-flipping option. But getting to the third row still takes the kind of hip-swivel-and-twist maneuver that is best left to youngsters or supple adults.
The sedan’s trunk is an enormous 21 cubic feet, which makes the luggage compartments of the main competitors from Honda, Toyota and Chrysler look more like ill-placed gloveboxes. And there is an ample amount of cargo space behind the third row in the Taurus X.
The interiors also look a little nicer, have more soundproofing and are comfortable places to be. Still, some of the heating and ventilation controls are too small, requiring a search-to-deploy approach.
The most important change is the switch to a more powerful (263 horsepower) 3.5-liter V-6 engine, said Michael Liubakka, the vehicle engineering manager for both the sedan and wagon.
Originally the Five Hundred and Freestyle came with a 3-liter V-6 rated at a mere 203 horsepower, which didn’t seem like much for such large vehicles. Ford executives scoffed at the scoffers, insisting there would be plenty of power. They suggested that the V-6 would work particularly well with Ford’s new continuously variable transmission because its use of belts — instead of a limited number of gears — would provide near-instant acceleration.
So much for Ford’s claims: the 3-liter V-6 is gone, along with the much-promoted variable transmission, which has been replaced with a new six-speed automatic developed jointly with General Motors.
The 60 extra horses are offset a little because the Taurus and Taurus X weigh some 75 to 100 pounds more. That pushes the all-wheel-drive Taurus X to about 4,200 pounds and the all-wheel-drive Taurus to 3,930 pounds.
Nevertheless, the new engine gives these vehicles the acceleration they needed from the beginning, albeit at the cost of scary thrills when merging onto a busy Interstate. Car and Driver magazine clocked the front-drive Taurus sedan at 6.8 seconds from zero to 60 m.p.h., about a second faster — a significant improvement — than the old Five Hundred.
In addition, the 3.5-liter V-6 plays well with the six-speed automatic, which goes about its gear-to-gear business in an eager and generally refined way.
The all-wheel-drive sedan is rated at 17 m.p.g. in the city and 24 m.p.g. on the highway, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s new ratings, which try to be more realistic. The front-drive sedan is rated at 18 m.p.g. city and 28 m.p.g. highway. The Taurus X is rated at 16 m.p.g. city and 24 m.p.g. highway with front-wheel drive and 15/22 with all-wheel drive.
From the beginning, the Five Hundred and Freestyle got good marks for their handling, although there were a few complaints that the ride was a bit stiff. The suspensions of the Taurus and Taurus X have been reworked with the goal of improving ride quality without a loss of handling prowess, Mr. Liubakka said.
Indeed, the Taurus and Taurus X ride comfortably on rough surfaces and still handle surprisingly well for their size. They are not agile enough to delude the driver into imagining these are smaller vehicles. But it is reassuring to know that despite their bulk they can respond quickly under demanding circumstances like a surprisingly sharp turn.
The sedan’s capability was demonstrated while traveling briskly near Franconia, N.H., when a turn that appeared to be gentle suddenly hooked around and became much tighter. At the same time, instead of the road having nice, nurturing banking to help guide the car through the turn, the road was off camber. That means it was angled down and away as if the goal was to flummox suspensions and fling vehicles into the woods. The all-wheel-drive Taurus hunkered down and completed the turn without any trauma.
Standard safety equipment includes antilock brakes as well as air curtains, which cover the side windows and offer head protection in a side-impact crash. The front seats also have seat-mounted air bags for chest protection. Studies have shown such equipment can significantly improve the chances of surviving a side-impact crash.
Another established lifesaver, electronic stability control, is standard only on the Taurus X. On the other models — including the fancy Limited version of the sedan — it is a $495 option. That’s an odd decision for a company that boasts about its emphasis on safety. Even the least expensive Honda Accord sedan comes with electronic stability control as standard fare, although it is an option on all Toyota Camrys except the Hybrid, on which it is standard.
The Taurus (and its close cousin, the Mercury Sable) is the top-rated family sedan in the severe front, side and rear crash tests conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety; and when equipped with electronic stability control it gets the ultimate accolade of Top Safety Pick.
The Taurus X also gets the Top Safety Pick designation — one of only three domestic midsize S.U.V.’s to get that label. The other two are also from Ford: the Edge and the Lincoln MKX.
In the end, the 2008 Taurus and Taurus X are attractive vehicles, but not benchmarks. If only Ford had introduced the Five Hundred and Freestyle with these upgrades, the cars could have been blockbusters, the names destined to be legendary instead of historical footnotes.
But Ford fumbled badly and gave competitors like G.M. time to field ultra-competitive vehicles like the Buick Enclave, while Chrysler came out with its 300 and Dodge Charger sedans and Toyota and Honda created larger Camrys and Accords. It was generous of Ford to provide this grace period, but perhaps charity should have begun at home.