By on May 22, 2006

 When Ford unleashed their new Fusion late last year, the American automotive press raved. Car & Driver's Csabe Csere predicted that the front-wheel drive sedan will "truly put Ford back in the car game." Road & Track's Matt DeLorenzo declared the Fusion was "Just the recipe for shaking up the midsize car market." Automobile said "Ford is serious about kicking its way back into the mid-size-car business." No wonder The Blue Oval is pleased with the Fusion and continues to advertise the car heavily. Strange, then, that the Mexican-built sedan was not the product that wore the mantle of the first financial quarter's "best selling Ford passenger car." That honor belongs to the Taurus.

Sorry, I should have said "belonged." That's right: the swoopy Taurus is finally dead. After 21-years on the showroom floor, despite outselling the Five Hundred and Fusion– combined– in the last quarter, The Blue Oval has pulled the plug on its ageing family four-door. The last retail unit has left the Atlanta assembly line. The final fleet car will disappear any day. It's the end of an era for American-built Fords, and a vehicle that was the best-selling US passenger car from '92 – '96.

 Ford claims Taureans have/will migrate to the smaller Fusion or the slightly larger Five Hundred. Maybe they did, maybe they didn't. Maybe they will, maybe they won't. Even if you discount fleet sales (so to speak), Ford's Taurus replacements don't seem to be picking-up the slack or setting the sales charts on fire. Is it possible that buyers preferred the Taurus to Ford's best and brightest? If so, that's a sad commentary on the current state of Ford's product development process. It also tells us– if not Ford's management– how to build a popular sedan.

When it was launched in '85, the Taurus was a ground-breaking car. Ford's sleek, freshly-designed Taurus boasted a stiff chassis, a choice of V6 or I4 engines, optional ABS brakes and a practical, comfortable interior. The Ford faithful flocked to the sensibly-priced motor, at a time when Ford flockers were nowhere to be seen. Many credit the model's sales for saving FoMoCo from an ignominious slide into insolvency. There's no question that the Taurus helped Ford recover valuable market share and delivered profits that allowed the company to develop other, even more profitable vehicles, like the Explorer and Expedition.

 The Taurus' stellar success sparked a number of books by Ford "insiders." While the accounts credit various Ford designers, engineers, managers and marketeers for the model's triumph, there's a common theme throughout the narratives: innovation, risk-taking and, most importantly of all, commitment. Author Mary Walton's "Car" chronicled the development of the second generation Taurus (which debuted in 1996). She reveals that the Taurus program managers' mantra was "beat Toyota". Their goal wasn't "equal Camry", or "come close to Camry", but 'beat Camry.' Possunt quia posse videntur. (They can because they think they can.)

Enraptured by SUV sales and profits, the Taurus slowly slipped from Ford's mind. After the second-generation Taurus– whose launch in '92 marked the model's zenith at 409,751 sales– Ford's mainstream motor failed to keep pace with the Camry. While Ford jelly-beaned the shape and revised the mechanicals, Toyota subjected the Camry to a regular, ruthless and relentless series of mechanical and sheetmetal upgrades and refreshes. The Taurus fell further and further behind, until it was no longer Ford's signature car or profit center. Finally, when even Ford could see that the SUV craze had begun to peak, the company realized that their ageing warhorse had fallen too far behind the competition to save.

 Ford spent huge amounts of time and money to create the Taurus' theoretical replacement. The Five Hundred is built on Volvo's SUV platform; it's both longer and taller than the Taurus. This sedan's extra cabin room and "SUV-like" elevation were supposed to be the new model's key selling points. Buyers stayed away in droves. The underpowered Five Hundred is just a little too big. The Mazda6-based Ford Fusion arrived to hit the sweet spot. Alas, the fine-handling Fusion seems just a little too small for American sedan buyers. In retrospect, the Taurus was a Goldilocks special: perfectly sized for middle America's taste and budget.

Billy Ford should have the last Ford Taurus placed in the lobby of his company's headquarters. The final "new" Taurus would serve as a fitting tribute to a model that helped keep the lights on during some of FoMoCo's darkest days. The Taurus could also serve as a stern warning to Blue Oval product developers: develop the products we already have, as well as they ones you think people want. If not, both our products and our company face the same extinction shamelessly inflicted upon this worthy machine. I'd also suggest the following inscription: there are old cars and there are bold cars, but the best cars are old, bold cars.

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