Capsule Review: 1996 Ford Taurus

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth

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.

Jack Baruth
Jack Baruth

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  • DweezilSFV DweezilSFV on Oct 13, 2009

    Nullomodo: I don't see how "decontenting" to offer a lower price would affect "quality". Can you explain [and not trying to be a jerk here]? There was still no excuse for the POS 3.8 and Junk-o Matic transmission to go on for nearly as long as they did, regardless of price. To me quality is a result of construction and of reliability, not features and "content". More stuff just means more junk to go wrong down the road.Get the basics right and the rep will follow. Or is it still sell the flash in Detroit? [Or not sell it in the case of the fish eye Taurus]

  • Jacob Jacob on Oct 14, 2009

    I honestly don't understand why so many people despise this car so much. Esp, those who complain about the oval shaped rear view window. There are many things that stand out about this car, but I finally paid attention to the oval rear view window shape only after I heard others complain about it. I personally always liked the design of this car. It's fairly smooth and unoffensive. I think it aged well too. A 1999 Taurus with well kept paint stands out even today. Comfort and driving experience are hardly anything special, but not bad either. I personally prefer driving a 99 Taurus to say a Ford Five Hundred, any SUV/CUV, or a Also, people who complain about the Taurs V6 engine not being good enough, probably do not realize that they're reviewing the old Vulcan engine. The 3rd gen Taurus was offered with one of two V6 engines. One was a 150HP 3.0L pushrod V6 called Vulcan. The other was 200HP 3.0 V6 with DOHC and 4 valves per cylinder (the tranny was slightly better too). To this day, when I ask the 3rd gen Ford Taurus or Mercury Sable owners and even sales people at dealerships "so which engine your car has", many have no clue. "What? It's a 3.0 V6" Certainly, the 200HP engine is not the fastest thing out there, but it certainly performs much better than a 2009 Ford/Honda/Toyota with a 4-cylinder, no matter how modern. I occasionally drive my 1999 Taurus from the college years. My only complaints about it are the following. (1) The shift from 1st to 2nd gear is kinda rough (which is a feature of all Tauruses, not a defect). (2) The car is a gas guzzler if you drive it strictly in a city (by that I mean, only on roads with 25-40mph speed limit and lots of stop signs). The official EPA rating is 18/25mpg. It actually gets close to 28MPG strictly on highways, but only 15-16mpg in the city. (3) Brakes could be better. Stopping distance is not impressive. The front rotors overheat if you try to have some fun with the car on a hilly road and the rear breaks even on my "upscale" 99 Duratec model are drums. (4) Engine noise. The sound isolation in the cabin could be better. Some nice points: 1) Internal space is nice. I am 6 foot tall and I feel comfortable sitting on the front and rear seats. 2) Nothing major broke until this year. Last week I found out that steering gear needs to be replaced ($800) 3) The engine is more than adequate. 4) Design (yes, I like it)..

  • Alan Like all testing and analysis work you need a good set of requirements. If you don't you'll find or end up with gaps.
  • Alan In aviation there is more vigourous testing, well, until Boeing changed things.
  • Alan This outcome was certain.The US, Australia and Canada need to approach this differently. A policy towards plug in hybrids should of been a first step. As in CAFE gradually tighten FE from there.There's no reason why you can't have a 2 litre F-150 with electric motors putting out 400-500hp. A 2 litre turbo is good for 200hp more than enough to move a pickup.Also increase fuel tax/excise every year to fill the void in loss of revenue.
  • Doug brockman hardly. Their goals remain to punish us by mandating unsafe unreliable unaffordable battery powered cars
  • Lorenzo It looks like the curves are out and the boxy look is back. There's an upright windscreen, a decided lack of view obstructing swoop in the rear side panels, and you can even see out of the back window. Is Lexus borrowing from the G-Class Mercedes, or the Range Rover?