The impressive 2010 Taurus made quite a few fans at the Don’t Call It The Detroit Auto Show, myself included. Ford’s new bull represents a solid vote of confidence in the concept of premium domestic-maker sedans, and it just might be the right car to make that idea work. Still, I can’t help but think back to the day Ford made the same gamble and lost heavily, just over thirteen years ago.
In 1995 I was the youngest salesman at an old-school, two-car-showroom Ford dealership that sat comfortably in a hundred-year-old neighborhood full of college professors, aging hipsters, and stubborn old blue-collar types. I earned a modest living selling between eight and fifteen units a month, mostly Explorers, Escorts, and the market-leading ’95 Taurus. We sold a ton of GL models for about $15,500 out the door and the occasional LX at slightly under twenty grand. Our primary enemy was the 1995 Camry, a solid, handsome, sprightly sedan that was nonetheless a little short on space compared to “our” product. We had a small price advantage and a larger dealer body; as a consequence the 1995 Taurus managed to become the best-selling car in America.
One August day I arrived for the afternoon shift and was excitedly told that our first 1996 Taurus had been delivered earlier that day. It was being held in the service department for prep. I ran through the double doors separating Sales from Service and saw it: a Duratec-powered, two-hundred-horsepower “LX” in Rose Mist Metallic.
My first thought: it looked like a cross between an XJ6 and an Infiniti J30. Second thought: this was a seriously upmarket car. It had expensive-looking headlights, small panel gaps, polished fifteen-spoke alloy wheels, and a fairly outrageous oval rear window. Inside the story was even better. We’d finally beaten Toyota on interior quality. The unique oval HVAC/radio panel looked like a million bucks. The seats were solid, supportive, and well-stitched. A brief drive around the neighborhood revealed the new Duratec V-6 to be smooth and strong, even if it didn’t have the SHO-style punch I’d expected from the two-hundred-horsepower rating. In fact, it was a little light on off-the-line punch compared to the old 3.8-liter V6 we’d had in the 1995 Taurus LX. Still, it was a hell of a car and clearly worth the money… holy crap. The sticker said twenty-four thousand dollars! More than a Crown Vic! How the hell were we going to sell this thing?
When our first “GL” arrived, I didn’t feel any more confident. The three-liter “Vulcan” wasn’t up to the task of moving the heavier ’96, and the $19,800 price for an alloy-wheeled example was still too much. Ford rushed a cheaper $17,995 “Taurus G” into the showrooms by the beginning of 1996, but Toyota had introduced a new, cheaper Camry that sold all day for that magic $15,500 price point. It didn’t match our Taurus on features, luxury, or space, but it was cheaper and it was very conventional-looking. Ford put money on the GL’s hood but we couldn’t move ‘em.
The writing was on the wall for Ford’s mid-sized market dominance by the time I quit the dealership in March of ’96. The last car I sold was a metallic-black “205A”-package Taurus GL, and in this case I was also the buyer. I loved the car; it had everything but power and was a joy on long drives. Ford began chopping content out of the Taurus in 1997 to help it compete on price, stretching out the platform’s life all the way to the ignominious fleet-market-only 2006 model. Those final models were sad, bland old sedans, but I’d prefer to remember that ambitious 1996 car as an example of Ford’s belief that consumers could recognize and appreciate a premium experience in a family sedan. It was a mistaken belief at the time, and only time will tell if the 2010 Taurus will succeed where its predecessor failed. I’m crossing my fingers.