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REVIEW

Reasons to be bullish on Taurus X

The crossover revitalizes a proud name with power, safety and comfort. Can it turn heads away from Toyota and Honda?

September 26, 2007|Warren Brown | Washington Post

Jack TELNACK stood proudly in front of the car that would return Ford to relevance. The year was 1985. The place was the styling studio at Ford's headquarters in Dearborn, Mich. The car was the Ford Taurus, which was being readied for the 1986 model-year launch in the United States.

Telnack was Ford's global vice president of design, a dapper and urbane sort who had caught the attention of his bosses with renderings of the 1979 Ford Mustang sports car and the compact 1984 Ford Tempo sedan.

But Telnack, a maverick within Ford's conservative executive corps, was standing in front of his biggest career risk yet -- and the company's biggest gamble to reclaim the loyalty of middle-American families who had defected to Japan's Honda Accord and Toyota Camry.

"What do you think?" Telnack asked, gesturing toward the strikingly oval Taurus sedan.

I was stunned. "What have you done with the box?" I asked. "This car has no corners!"

Telnack laughed. For years, Ford had been losing sales and market share by aping the uninspired boxy styling of domestic rivals General Motors and Chrysler. It was as if the Detroit Three had decided that Middle America deserved nothing more than funereal designs augmented by splashes of exterior chrome and interiors festooned with polyurethane forestry. That the American public was turning away from that linear boredom didn't seem to matter. What didn't sell on merit -- and little of what came from Detroit in those days did -- could always be sold with consumer rebates.

That is why Telnack's Taurus was so bold, so wonderfully different. It said that style and quality mattered. It said that Middle America deserved a car to smile about. And for nearly a decade after its introduction, the Taurus sold exceptionally well, dethroning the Accord as the bestselling car in America in 1992.

But in the interim, Ford had fallen in love with trucks -- the bigger, the better. Like a fickle lover unmindful of the good thing already in hand, it neglected the Taurus, allowed it to slip into oblivion and walked away from it in 2006.

That was dumb.

The Taurus was a good brand turned into an also-ran by corporate abdication of continuous product improvement. There was nothing wrong with the name. There was something wrong with the car.

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To the rescue

Thankfully, Alan Roger Mulally, who took over as Ford's president and chief executive last September, quickly reversed the error. He scrapped the go-nowhere Ford 500 moniker that had replaced the Taurus name and restored the Taurus badge to its rightful place -- on the flagship, bread-and-butter big sedans and wagons that Middle America wants.

It was more than a name change, as amply demonstrated by the all-wheel-drive 2008 Ford Taurus X Limited wagon driven for this column. Granted, the new Taurus wagon shares many of the underpinnings of the ill-named Ford Freestyle wagon/crossover utility vehicle it is replacing.

So what?

What counts is that the new Taurus X Limited wagon is an all-around better vehicle, offered with a stronger engine, more safety (electronic stability control is standard) and a more comfortable, ergonomically appealing interior than the Freestyle. And in the critical areas of customer touch and feel -- fit and finish -- it trumps anything that Ford has done with big family vehicles in the company's 104-year history.

Families will love the seven-seat wagon, in which the rear seats easily can be flipped and folded to make room for lots of cargo. Designated family taxi drivers will appreciate the wagon's height and nearly 360-degree visibility, which affords a commanding view of the road. And they will find comfort in knowing that much of the Taurus X Limited wagon's safety engineering comes from Volvo Cars, a Ford subsidiary that has a long-standing reputation for safety in vehicle design.

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It's not exactly perfect

Complaints: Ria Manglapus, my associate in vehicle evaluations, initially complained that the Taurus X Limited wagon (base price: $31,800) was underpowered. However, she conceded that her opinion might have been biased by her stints in the last two cars we drove: the Audi R8 sports coupe and the Mercedes-Benz C300 sports sedan, speed demons both. My wife, Mary Anne, wanted the flip-and-fold rear seats to drop into the floor in the manner of the "Stow 'n' Go" seating system available in the Dodge Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country minivans.

Meanwhile, in ride, acceleration and handling, the 3.5-liter V-6 engine in the Taurus X wagon is a big improvement over the Ford Freestyle's lackluster-under-load 3-liter. Acceleration and handling are very good. Ride comfort is excellent.

The Taurus X Limited's exterior styling -- hearkening to Ford's new design signature, represented by the tough-stance, wide, slatted grille -- probably is a tad more conservative than Telnack would have liked. But it works with this vehicle, giving it a sense of substance, purpose and pride, images valued in Middle America.

Whether the new Taurus X Limited wagon and its sedan siblings are strong enough to retake ground lost to Toyota and Honda remains to be seen. But it and its companion models will sell well.

That means one thing: The motorized battle for Middle America's heart and mind is on. And this time, in the big family vehicle segment, it is not at all certain that Toyota and Honda will continue their winning streak.

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