Ford likes SUVs so much that they build five platforms for ‘em, many of which fight amongst themselves for sales in overlapping segments. Yet the most competitive, the most relevant of Ford’s sport-utilities is also the one no one— not even Ford marketing— seems to know exists: the Taurus X, née Freestyle. Question: if a terrific CUV falls in the sales charts and nobody in Dearborn notices, does it exist?
In 2005, while Ford’s PR team was busy blowing smoke about “Bold Moves,” the Freestyle slipped quietly into dealerships with a C.V. as impressive as a certain ex-Boeing exec’s. Sub-Highlander height? Check. Super-Highlander interior space? Check. Agile, rock-solid chassis derived from the previous-gen Volvo S80’s? Ja, that too.
So what’s caused this clever crossover to languish on dealer lots? Two little words: no marketing. Two years after its “soft launch,” the Freestyle was abandoned for the Next Big Thing (a.k.a. the Edge). As the Freestyle had less name recognition than the Explorer (or, for that matter, the Donkervoort S8AT), CEO Alan Mulally felt free to rename the model a Taurus X. By then the Freestyle was so far under the radar Ford could have called it the F-Up and no one would have noticed.
And yet, as TTAC proclaimed last time ’round, Ford’s crossover is well worth a second look. Despite a hasty application of Ford’s new Norelco nose, the Taurus X wears tidy, tallish proportions topped with a tastefully anonymous greenhouse. Call it a hemmed-out Outback, or a slim-fit Explorer. You could also call it anodyne. Narcoleptic or not, the Taurus X avoids the bulbous look blighting many vehicles in its class.
The X’s cabin exhibits similar restraint. It’s an easy step into the wide, elevated driver’s seat. The raised helmspot combines with thin pillars and a generous glass area to provide a widescreen windscreen. The no-nonsense dash is clean and conservatively curved, comprised of barely-pliable plastics and parts-bin switchgear. A thick, rubberized grab bar perches atop the glovebox, perfect for panicky co-pilots who brace themselves for every lane change (you know who you are).
Prefer to banish those passengers to the back? They won’t need much convincing. The Taurus X’s low, flat floor and tall ceiling provide van-like space in the second row, with two properly propped-up “captain’s chairs” ready to quell complaints on long trips. A cavernous console bin with two deep cupholders separates these comfy thrones; a conventional three-across bench seat is a no-cost option.
Then there’s Taurus X’s piece de resistance: the third-row seat. Okay, this isn’t the sort of thing that gets pistonheads’ blood pumping. But the X’s “way-back” is a packaging marvel that offers a wide, easy step-through to a mini-bench sized for real, live humans. Even teenagers (who share over 99 percent of their DNA with humans) will find knee clearance uncontestable, with surplus space overhead for carefully-groomed manes and coifs.
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of a decent third row, as anyone who’s done much crossover cross-shopping can attest. In this class, only GM’s Lambda triplets offer such magnanimous space for seven, and the Enclave, Acadia and Outlook are nearly one thousand pounds porkier– each– than the Taurus X. The Toyota Highlander’s third row, by comparison, is a nicely-trimmed tuna can.
The Ford and Toyota go tit for tat when it comes to hauling familial detritus. Each offers huge floor space in back; the Toyota offers a bit more of it, while the Ford boasts a lower liftover. The Highlander shames the X’s weak 2,000 lbs, tow rating; the Ford busts a can of fold-ass on the front passenger’s seat.
Here’s another X feature that’s missing from the Toyota: steering feel! Now, don’t get too excited here. While offering more feedback than most of its rivals, the Taurus X’s power assisted helm still feels gummy and a touch light around the straight-ahead. But it carves linear, reassuring arcs in curves. And that means the X drives smoothly, easily, and, well, no differently than the four-door Taurus. It ought to, considering that the X sits only six inches taller than its sedan stablemate, with the same driver eyepoint.
Performance? Yes, there’s some of that, too, as the Freestyle’s badge and grille weren’t the only things Ford swapped out for 2008. There’s also a new 3.5-liter V6, weighing in at 263 horsepower, mated to a six-speed automatic. This combination provides a steady, seamless supply of oomph; albeit delivered in that distant, detached manner endemic to quiet, high-riding vehicles. The auto occasionally dithers when asked to downshift, magnifying the impression. But then, no three-row crossover is a street scorcher.
Even as Ford’s SUV stable swells to bursting, the mpg Taurus X is the best of the bunch: reasonably frugal, perfectly practical, wonderfully comfortable and thoroughly modern. But Ford’s stunning lack of situational and self-awareness condemns the Taurus X to obscurity. Thus the mighty have fallen.