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BEHIND THE WHEEL

For Those Who'd Like to Drive a Jujube

October 27, 1995|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The 1996 Ford Taurus arrives with the suggestion that its development team went to lunch and left the styling computer unattended. Programmed to explore eggs, nuclear submarines, teardrops and tadpoles, the machine doodled an automobile from nothing but interlocking ovoids.

That's it, yelped a designer. Out with boxes, in with Jujubes. Avant-garde, but aerodynamically viable and cuddly with a whisper of Asian allure. Radical, but reminiscent of mother and farmhouse breakfasts.

And, went the wisdom at Dearborn, innovative enough to attract repeat buyers, entice new customers from imports, and carry the bullish Taurus into its fourth year as America's best-selling passenger car.

The startling new look is also a huge risk, a $2.5-billion redevelopment bet that different equates to exciting and that the car's new visuals will attract, not repulse.

Unfortunately, anyone looking for sharper horns on the new Taurus will find numerous invisible refinements, but basically the same ordinary performance from a V-6 making a lazy 145 horsepower, with a slappy four-speed automatic making too much ado about motoring.

When introduced a decade ago, the Taurus showed only one oval and that was the Ford badge on the grille.

At a quick count, the new Taurus is a cluster of six dozen ellipticals. Oval headlights. Oval rear window. Oval ashtrays, door handles, turn signals, silhouette, air vents and the ultimate devotion to the obovate form--white ovals within red ovals as courtesy lights inside the front doors.

As a car, this is a statue to motion sickness. The grille is a grinning zucchini, giving Taurus the look of those cute Techron guys in the Chevron commercials. If it hadn't been a detriment to ride and handling, somebody might have suggested oval wheels.

On the other hand, one person's uglies are another's personification of drop-dead beauty. Cross our heart, hope to die on bad sushi, but a week with the Taurus produced a noticeable forest of thumbs up, several "wows," two "real cools," and only one man poking a finger down his throat. Maybe he had the bad sushi.

*

There's little doubt that the original Taurus was born a stunning success because it was a genuinely fine car amid huge, clumsy and generally awful domestic rivals. There was an Asian nuance to its lines and a European tautness to its handling.

But today, from Chrysler Concorde to Nissan Maxima, there are more than a dozen quick, comfortable, well-equipped sedans flirting in the $20,000 range. Ford isn't worried about all of them. But mentions of Honda Accord and Toyota Camry have been known to have Ford executives sending out for herbal tea and anxiety pills.

Taurus may be the sales champ. But Accord is the second-best-selling car by only a few thousand units, with Camry a very close third. In a contest this tight, there is no room for Taurus to even think about stumbling.

So Ford is splurging $120 million into advertising its highly profitable conquest car as one that will make the dream come true. It does not specify what dream.

There is a six-month, love-it-or-leave-it Taurus lease for Accord and Camry owners. Plus $50 dinner certificates for test driving a Taurus, and $250 for renewing its lease. Ford even turned to the heavens for help, paying Sherman Oaks astrologer Joyce Jillson $500 to pick a solstice-blessed introduction date for the car.

Which means my house will probably move into disarray, with Venus descending into the arms of Hugh Grant, should I continue to make criticism of products protected by the sign of Taurus.

Let's make it clear: Three million loyal Americans who currently own Tauruses cannot be accused of making unwise purchases. This has always been a filling, adequate, reliable, wholesome car. But so is food in boot camp.

Its replacement will do you no harm, shows some flashy packaging and will comfortably carry you across states and between cities. So will Greyhound.

Despite a 2.4% price increase to a new base price of $18,600, the new Taurus is still not horribly expensive to own, repair, insure, maintain or keep for five years before recycling into a graduation gift. But neither are Chevy Luminas, Toyota Camrys, Mazda 626s, Eagle Visions, Mitsubishi Galants, Volkswagen Jetta IIIs, Honda Accords, and the rest of the world's affordable, mid-size chorus line.

Although 5.4 inches longer and two inches wider, with larger interior dimensions, Taurus looks smaller because of its rounded ends and soft-boiled shape. Passenger- and driver-side air bags are standard, but anti-lock brakes are optional. So is air conditioning, anti-theft system, leather seats, JBL audio and central locking.

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