By on December 9, 2008

She beckoned me. She betrayed me. Like a transvestite with a svelte smooth body, exposed by ungodly rough stubble underneath her lip. The 1990 Mercury Sable had a perfect silhouette that was maligned by two hundred parking lot dings and scratches on her lower front bumper. An older lady had given her some brutal blows to that lower psyche of hers over the years and now it was my turn at the wheel… so to speak. Little did I know that this first encounter would be just the beginning of The Crying Game. This particular example of a Mercury Sable was as unique as it was dichotomous. 47,000 original miles in 18 years. But a base model with a fecal brown exterior. The equally repugnant plaid brown interior did the vehicle no favors. But Hell. For $600 I’d just be willing to cover her up in a paper bag and drive her around town for a while.


And there was the surprise. This older Sable was actually more relaxing to drive than the classic Volvo’s, decrepit Jaguars, or even the downsized Cadillacs that make it to the impound lot auctions that I do on occasion. The 1st generation Sable offered outstanding aerodynamics that literally put all it’s contemporaries to shame (save the Audi 5000 and T-Bird). You put a raindrop on this beauty and the only thing that would have stopped it from going all the way to the ground is the evaporation that came from a blown head gasket or a grenaded tranny.

And alas, there was the true bitch that’s within the Sable’s beauty. Ford’s masterpiece of automotive art had been given a three dollar canvas by the bean counters. In fact, I can’t even find an AXOD transmission in North Georgia due to to the fact that they have all either been used or crushed. The 3.8’s I can find all too easily thanks to Ford putting that in everything from Mustangs to minivans for time immemorial. Come to one of my auctions full of abandoned and sized vehicles. Close your eyes. Throw a rock. Chances are you’ll either hit a Ford with a 3.8 or a Dodge Neon.

The Mercury Sable ended up languishing with junk quality parts for well over a decade and to be honest, Ford never really got their act together. Many people today don’t even know that the Mercury Sable exists which is a shame. Because if Ford had only chosen to give their customers a quality product, there would have never been a Montego. A what? Exactly.

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32 Comments on “Capsule Review: Mercury Sable...”


  • avatar
    NickR

    Steven, funny as always.

    Come to one of my auctions full of abandoned and seized vehicles

    Have you ever found a real gem amongst these abandoned and seized vehicles?

    On the other end of the spectrum have you ever found one with bullet holes, concealed weapons or drugs, or a body part?

  • avatar
    Dave M.

    I gotta ask: was the paint fading in strips on the roof and trunk like my mom’s ’91 did by ’94?

    Except for the paint (and perpetual warped rotors), it was a good and decent car. Rode and drove well. The Taurus/Sable is yet another Ford screw up for the ages, especially when they take the top selling family sedan and totally bastardize the styling while jacking the price up. Idiots.

  • avatar
    Areitu

    I think of Robocop whenever I see one of these things.

  • avatar
    200k-min

    Ahh yes, I was once the proud owner of a 1990 Taurus. My father drove it as a company car and in late 1992 it was the most used car I could afford given the leasing company was practically giving it away. Over the next eight years I put well over 100k miles on the thing. For some reason I had the one AXOD engine that didn’t suck and never had an issue. The biggest problems were a blown water pump while crossing the rockies in Montana, and the occassional stall in hot weather thanks to a crappy designed TFI module. It got me from point A to B for 8 years, with very little cost of ownership. Sold it for $500 with just over 200k miles on it. That guy left it parked in a bad part of town one night and it was stolen. I wonder if it was stripped and parts of my old Taurus are living on in the few remaining Gen I taurii. Wishful thinking.

  • avatar
    Jason

    I think of highly compressed rust whenever I see one of these things.

  • avatar
    Emro

    ahhh the memories… my parents bought a nice new black/grey Sable (with a red interior) in 1992… they still have it amazingly, its been (slowly) driven around town by my mother for all these years, i don’t think its even broken the 100,000KMs mark yet. The front end did get driven over by a Uhaul cube van, while i was driving of course… all fixed up it still lives on…

  • avatar
    bunkie

    I owned two different editions of the 1st-gen Sable wagon, both bought for cheap. The first one was a red 1990 example bought from an auto auction for $1200. It had 125K on it. It is one of the best car values I have ever had. The 3.0 Vulcan is a paragon of reliability and thrift. Only 140 horsepower, but it never failed to start, run smoothly and it never burned a drop of oil that I could tell. We routinely got 25mpg. My sum total spent on repairs for this car was a set of front brake rotors which cost all of $50 and took 20 minutes to install. I put 20K miles on it and the only reason I gave it away was that the winter before we ran over a deer and, believe me, when the scruffy hippies whose Vanagon you park next to remark that your car “smells funny”, it’s time to part ways. The car made numerous 1000-mile road trips in the dead of winter and the heat of summer.

    I replaced it with a 1995 example that was almost as good. We replaced that with a 2000 Taurus wagon. All three had the Vulcan, none of which deviated from the previous experience. By way of contrast, I’ve hear nothing but horror stories about the 3.8. The Sable/Taurus are oft-maligned but if you buy used (as if there’s a choice these days) and make careful choices, you can get a lot of car for the money. And parts are dirt-cheap.

  • avatar

    I had a 1988 Taurus wagon that I owned briefly with the 3.8L V6 known for blowing head gaskets and of course the auto known for dying young. Never really trusted it and wife refused to drive it. Did see it still running for years after (had distinct body damage).

  • avatar
    radimus

    Ford sort of got their act together, but it was too late. From 1999 forward the 3.8L was a good motor because they fixed the head gasket issue. From 2002 forward the trannies were better because they redesigned the AX4S. If you have a Ford with a bad AX4S tranny don’t bother replacing it with another out of a scrap yard. You’ll end up right back where you started in short order. Have yours rebuilt or sell the car for real cheap. Rebuilt right with the updated parts they hold up a lot better.

  • avatar
    jpcavanaugh

    Sigh. I remember driving the first Sable in 1986. This was the first mid sized or larger car that drove decently since maybe 1971 or 2. The first FoMoCo in years that did not make me think how much I missed a 390 and a CruiseOMatic. Decemt power and torque, smooth transmission. Solid structure. We forget how miserable cars drove from the mid 70s to the mid 80s. Stalling, roughness, hesitation, lack of power. Plus, the Sable did not shake squeak and rattle like the CelebCutSky6000. Unfortunately, Ford did with the Taurus/Sable what it did with all its cars for years – take a nice, modern competitive car and then cut it adrift from any thought of keeping it fresh. Just crank em out till the rental fleets won’t take them anymore. Too bad. It was a nice car.

  • avatar
    Johnster

    Dave M. : I gotta ask: was the paint fading in strips on the roof and trunk like my mom’s ‘91 did by ‘94?

    These used a new paint that was more eco-friendly, but not very durable. One of my bosses had an ’87. By the early ’90s All of the paint on the roof, hood, trunk and top surfaces of the fenders had oxidized away leaving gray primer. There was some sort of silent warranty thing going on and Ford gave him a partial reimbursement to have it repainted.

  • avatar
    stars9texashockey

    Count me in as an owner of a transmission challenged Sable. Lots of warped rotors too.

  • avatar
    Zarba

    Back S-L-O-W-L-Y away from the Sable.

    We had a 1988 Taurus L, base model in all its glory. Black with gray mouse fur interior. Vulcan 3.0 V-6.

    Bought it used with 75K on the clock. Actually drove very nicely. Good handling, quiet, fast enough.

    But mechanically? A complete POS.

    A/C: Gone “3.0 V-6? They all do that. $1,000 to fix it like it should have been from the factory.”

    Tranny: Leaked

    Brakes: Leaked

    Power Steering: Leaked

    Oil: Leaked.

    Finally got most of the leaks stopped and the computer working, and sold it. Did a Happy Dance in the driveway as it disappeared.

    The wife will never have another Ford product.

    Hey Lang, I’m in GA. Holler at me and I’ll go to auctions with ya. At least I’ll keep you away from these disasters…

  • avatar
    GS650G

    My father and I have done 5 gasket jobs on the 3.8 between us. I did two and he did three on the same car. He lost a trans in his ’88, replaced a trans 4 times (3 under warranty) in his 93, and I was able to trade mine before the main pump went in the tranny.

    Replacement parts included lots of rotors, AC evaporator core, turn signal stalks (these were common), the rear sway bar bushings, fuel pumps, water pumps, TFI, fans, lots of little 9 dollar headlights all over the place, plenty of valve cover gaskets, and the imfamous overdrive solenoid C-clip that causes the AXOD to stay in 3rd and not go into 4th. How many people paid for a new transmission when a .50 cent part was all it needed to fix it?

    There were lots of other parts too, too many to list. Then I bought a Hyundai and haven’t done shit to it. Most reliable car I ever owned. Too bad, I miss the Sable. It had decent power, road nice, and handled OK. I liked the trip computer in the electronic dash I had, it had great features.

    But like everything else the Sable/Taurus was ignored in favor of the Explorer, Expedition, and the trucks. By the time they worked the bugs out nobody, but nobody would take a chance on one. The last 3 years saw redesigned transmissions, engines and a competent if not boring sedan.

    The Ford 500 was a miscarriage if there ever was one.

  • avatar
    krhodes1

    Such an astonishing accomplishment that Ford managed to take the Taurus/Sable from a best-selling, class-leading mid-size car to utter rental-Hell crap in 15 years or so. The original Taurus was a revelation compared to the dreck that GM and Chrysler produced at the time. Then of course the penny-pinching parts and materials choices came back to haunt them.

    And it never changes. Just this past Sunday my Grandparents ’02 Windstar puked up its transmission to the tune of $3500 or so. At 58,000 miles… And people wonder why the big 3 are in the state they are in.

  • avatar
    06M3S54B32

    Thanks for the article Steven!! I laughed so hard I blew Pepsi out of my nose. I linked this to some people I know are going to laugh hard on this.

  • avatar
    potatobreath

    GS650G:

    .50 cent part? :)

  • avatar
    63CorvairSpyder

    …I actually owned two Sables in the 90s. My best friend is the GM at a L-M dealer(I’m feeling very sorry for him these days). First one was a 91 “program/rental” car, had 15,000 miles on it when I got it, put 65,000 more on it in three years. Never had a problem. Traded it on a 95 program car. That to was fine except for the head gasket job it needed at 60,000. Good solid cars, can’t complain.

  • avatar
    John B

    bunkie: “By way of contrast, I’ve hear nothing but horror stories about the 3.8.”

    You’ve heard that correctly. Our ’95 Sable required three head gasket changes. The first two were courtesy of Ford (a secret warranty). When it went for the last time we bought a Mazda.

  • avatar
    golden2husky

    I have a 92 (second gen) Vulcan Sable that was a family hand me down. Loaded to the gunwales, it is now my station car. At only 112,000 miles, it has the original transmission and it mostly trouble free. Being delivered new to our family I have all the service records. No head gaskets, warped rotors, or electrical trouble. A/C still works with original compressor, but converted to R134. One oil pan leak, second radiator. Paint is decent – no fade – for a car that spent its entire life outside. Leather seats did not hold up well, but a pair of leather 2006 Taurus buckets from eBay bolted right in. So did first gen SHO swaybars, 16″ wheels and Michelin performance tires. Even my station car has to handle well. It’s fun to stay glued to the bumper of much newer cars on the off ramps, door dings be damned.

    Keep in mind that life on the other end of the odometer (not to mention almost two decades)is not the same. You have to expect some repairs, and this car is no different. Rubber parts age, and silly parts fail, like the springs in the driver’s door handle. But overall, this car was a good buy and reliable.

  • avatar
    WaftableTorque

    My dad owns a white 1991 Mercury Sable. We bought it in 1993 for half of it’s MSRP, and he still has it. 3.0L engine is bulletproof, never had any mechnical issues except for an air conditioner that wouldn’t stay sealed. Changed the tranny fluid once in 15 years, and kept the engine filled with synthetic oil.

    We also had a 1990 Toyota Camry LE V6. People forget how crappy Japanese cars used to be, and there was no comparison: the Sable was the better car. It may not have had as smooth a V6, but it handled better, was quieter, better gas mileage, stiffer chassis, superior ride, better headlights/seats/power accessories, and much better corrosion resistance.

    The car refuses to die. Americans made competitive cars then.

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    Thank you all very much.

    I’ve actually had about twenty or so Tauruses and Sables over the last three years. Here’s a quick story for those who wonder about the impound lot sales.

    About two years ago I did a sale down in Austell, GA. A friend of mine had about 50 vehicles that had been put through the court orders and certified mailings. A lot of interesting stuff. An old pink Beetle. A couple of vintage Benzes and Detroit Iron… and finally a white 1995 Taurus that everyone overlooked but me.

    It had 81,000 original miles and had apparently been parked under a tree for at least two years. The dirt and pollen on it was as thick as the late Tammy Faye’s leotard face. Everyone assumed it was just junk.

    But hmmmm… let’s see here. Sheriff association stickers all over the left side of the rear. The proverbial AARP and AAA stickers also let me know that the owner was more than likely not a speed demon and with good Michelin tires and a quick Autocheck, I knew I had something. Bought it for $300 which also happened to be my hourly rate at the time. One hour of work, free car.

    I checked the fluids, jumped it, and drove it home. Interior was really well kept and there was this smell that seemed vaguely familiar as the miles went by.

    It was transmission fluid. The rear seal was leaking like a sieve. By the time I was 8 miles down the road, I quickly pulled in to an Autozone and found it three quarts low. Now, I could have asked the impound lot to tow it to my friend’s repair place but… hell, I was always the adventurous type when it came to weird cars. I bought a case of tranny fluid, filled it up to level, drove it five miles, and repeated about three times before I finally got to the shop.

    After the seal was put in, I went to the $3 car wash to remove the dirt that had somehow transformed itself into phallic art thanks to the owner’s juvie son. An old jalopy that had been the automotive version of Pigpen Penis turned into a white that was as distinct as David Duke’s bodyguard. I took 4 pics and put it on Craigslist for $2000.

    A couple of 20-something’s came up from Northern Florida (5 hour drive) and bought it on the spot for cash. I told them that it would take time to process the title. Well, apparently it wouldn’t need one after all. It turned out that the Taurus had a fight with a train in Southwest Georgia on the way down to Florida, and it lost. I got a call from the Stewart County Police Department. One of the fellows who apparently was about to trade in money for time due to this stunt let the cops know that the car was bought from me and I was curtly told that the title transfer would no longer be needed.

    I can’t say I miss the car. But I will say that the Taurus & Sable of that era were far better riding cars than the Accord or Camry. If you’re looking for a comfortable ride that can seat five, this was the best of that era. Toyota didn’t build a better model until 1992 (which was far more expensive), and Honda’s Accord of the time were simply a rougher riding vehicle. Their quality was excellent. But they hadn’t mastered the classic American ride that most folks were still demanding.

  • avatar
    GS650G

    potatobreath :
    December 9th, 2008 at 5:58 pm

    GS650G:

    .50 cent part? :)

    A small C-clip holds the overdrive solenoid piston in place. It breaks. Then the solenoid cannot engage the outer planet gear for overdrive. The car then runs in 3 gear and cooks the transmission. You can see how flimsey the part is, just a cheap casting. A better part should be used but that would cost more.Just one of the defects in the AXOD. The piston cracks in the valve body, another defect.

    I bought 2 c-clips at Lowes to fix mine. I put the broken part on the wall in my office and told people it was a 1500.00 C-clip. That is what transmission shops charge for when this happens. The fact this happened to my dad’s 88 and later on a 93 means they failed to learn from their mistakes. Surely someone told them what was happening, but since it happens OUT OF WARRANTY who at Ford gives a shit.

    Took me an hour to replace it, they should have recalled the cars or offered to replace the part. Better yet, by 1993 they should have been using a better quality C-clip.

    My 100K warranty on my Hyundai transmission coV6 .50 C-clips that cost 1500.00 to replace.

  • avatar
    50merc

    The other day I saw a well-preserved Sable and it made me fondly recall my beautiful green ’92. I bought it new and it gave me 85,000 miles of service with only one mechanical failure (a heater hose sprung a leak). I traded it off because I figured something costly was bound to break eventually. The main shortcoming was the 3.0L engine’s lack of torque.

    GS650G: “A small C-clip holds the overdrive solenoid piston in place. It breaks. … The car then runs in 3 gear and cooks the transmission. You can see how flimsy the part is, just a cheap casting. … I bought 2 c-clips at Lowes to fix mine. I put the broken part on the wall in my office and told people it was a 1500.00 C-clip. That is what transmission shops charge for when this happens. The fact this happened to my dad’s 88 and later on a 93 means they failed to learn from their mistakes. Surely someone told them what was happening, but since it happens OUT OF WARRANTY who at Ford gives a shit.”

    Which makes me suspect the transmission shop owner was right when he said carmakers don’t care about this. Alternatively, the engineers are stupid or don’t give a damn. I don’t buy the penny-pinching theory because the C-clip probably costs Ford less than a nickle since they buy millions.

  • avatar
    James2

    My dad must have lucked out. He had a ’92 Taurus wagon and later a ’96. Neither suffered from any significant mechanical maladies.

  • avatar
    Stingray

    Mr. Lang, I take my hat off with the deals you get.

    You got the ability to spot a diamond where others see rubbish.

    I like the 1st-2nd gen Taurus, specially the SHO.

    Sable… 2nd gen looked better.

  • avatar
    Omnifan

    A friend had a Taurus Continental with the 3.8. Talk about a money pit. EVERYTHING went bad on that engine and it was a $%#$^^ to work on. Ford must have had union assemblers who had fingers the size of a 6 month old. After throwing several thousands of dollars to keep the beast running, she finally sold it for $200 plus $600 worth of tattoos.

  • avatar
    200k-min

    But I will say that the Taurus & Sable of that era were far better riding cars than the Accord or Camry.

    I wholly agree. In 1985 the Taurus was truly a revolutionary car. The mid-80’s Camry and Accord may have been reliable appliances but they owe much of their stylistic evolution to the Taurus. Many years ago I read an article where one of the engineers that designed the ’92 Camry said they disected the Taurus when developing that Camry…and honestly that Camry is what more or less launched it to the top selling car it is today. There’s also a good book about the Taurus – “the car that saved Ford.” It wasn’t a perfect car, but it’s the best sedan Detroit has come up with in my lifetime…and I’m not sure how great the 60’s & 50’s cars were when you strip away the nostalgia.

    For a few years now I’ve been quietly looking for a decent shape SHO model, 5 speed, ’95 or older. Unfortunately most cars that old these days are owned by kids that beat the snot out of them, and most are automatics. If a nice one shows up in Georgia I’d be willing to take it off your hands…and have a heck of a time driving it up north!

  • avatar
    NickR

    When I was in sales just out of university these were very commmon in our fleet. We only kept them for 80,000km, so they were pretty fresh when they went off lease. Employees who wanted one for personal transportation got smokin’ deals. I had a Cutlass Sierra, the Taurus, and an Intrepid…the Taurus was my favourite.

  • avatar
    geeber

    The original Taurus/Sable is a perfect example of Ford’s ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

    It was a revelation compared to its domestics competitors – the GM A-cars (Chevrolet Celebrity/Pontiac 6000/Buick Century/Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera) and the K-car based Dodges and Chryslers. The contemporary Accord and Camry were too small to really compete.

    If Ford had kept after that car the way Toyota worked on the Camry, the Taurus would be today’s best-selling car.

  • avatar

    I just picked up a ’94 Taurus wagon with 200K for $205 on ebay. I figured at that price I could get my money back out of the biggest POS by parting it out. Went to pick it up and discovered it had been sitting for 6 months after developing a starting problem in hot weather. Car started right up with a tank of old gas, and drove 1.5hrs home without complaint. I’ve since put in about a $125 in assorted parts and brought it to “reliable beater” status.

    I’ve got a soft spot for the ’88-’95 taurii, and really wish Ford had gotten their act together and done a sightly better job of building them, and hadn’t a)done the horrible ’96 redesign and b)then left the cars to wither on the vine.

  • avatar

    I’ve still got my ’94 Taurus, bought two years ago. It’s needed a transmission, engine, fuel pump, tires, radiator, master cylinder, windshield washer fluid pump, but with 250,000 mi. on it, that’s understandable.

    Still has the original starter! And my nephews and niece love riding in the “way-back” fold up wagon seat.

    I’ve coaxed 38.11 mpg out of it before too. All freeway cruise control driving, and not many new cars can beat that!

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