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Ford is expected to revive Taurus -- in name only

The automaker may re-christen the flagging Five Hundred sedan. Analysts are unsure the change would help.

February 07, 2007|John O'Dell | Times Staff Writer

No bull, the Taurus appears to be coming back.

Struggling Ford Motor Co., which killed its iconic mid-size sedan in October, is expected to announce this morning that the slow-selling Ford Five Hundred sedan will soon be called the Taurus.

The name change would begin with 2008 models that hit showrooms late this summer, according to several published reports.

The move is seen as another effort by Ford's new chief executive, Alan Mulally, to breathe life into the company, which has seen its sales and market share plummet in the last decade and lost $12.8 billion in 2006.

The full-size Five Hundred slipped badly last year as sales fell to 84,218, down 22% from 2005, the car's first full year on the market.

Sales of the European-styled sedan, which auto critics have called bland-looking and underpowered, plunged again last month, down 55% from a year earlier.

The automaker, criticized by loyalists for killing the Taurus, apparently believes the name retains enough brand equity to resurrect the model that was supposed to help replace it.

Even Mulally, hired away from Boeing Co. in September to restructure Ford, has said repeatedly that he believes the automaker erred in allowing the Taurus to die a slow death by declining to spend on marketing and selling it only to rental car companies in its last year.

Ford isn't banking solely on the once-popular Taurus' recognition factor to revive Five Hundred sales. The car, which shares its underpinnings with several Volvo vehicles, is expected to get a larger engine and an updated look for the '08 model year.

The original Taurus, introduced in December 1985, helped change the direction of automotive design by forgoing the sharp edges that were popular at the time in favor of soft curves.

The Taurus, often referred to as the "jellybean" car because of its shape, was slow to catch on, but by 1988 it had become a bestseller for Ford.

Ford spokeswoman Sara Tatchio would neither confirm nor deny the reports but intended to make a major announcement at the Chicago Auto Show this morning.

"Taurus has been a great name for us, and we're looking forward to the press conference," she said.

Its expected resurrection brought mixed reviews Tuesday.

The wisdom of bringing back a name that many equate with a cheap rental car "seems to be an act of desperation," said analyst Wes Brown of Iceology, a Los Angeles-based automotive market research firm.

"The Taurus name isn't that great; it's a Hertz rental car."

The move should have been made as soon as production of the old Taurus stopped, "but it still makes sense," said analyst Tom Libby of J.D. Power & Associates in Westlake Village.

"Ford can tap into a lot of Taurus owners and former Taurus owners who really liked the car," he said.

Dave Conant, owner of Cerritos Ford, said the renaming showed that executives "must feel that it's silly to leave the Taurus name sitting on a shelf."

Although renaming the Five Hundred "might confuse some people, you have to look at how many people identified with the Five Hundred in the first place," Conant said, referring to the car's weak sales history.

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john.odell@latimes.com

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