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Ford Taurus / Mercury Sable
Form Over Function
The first restyle of Ford's bold and innovative 1986 Taurus had come and gone with a yawn. Introduced in 1992, it was promptly criticized. Too mild, the critics said. Too boring, the enthusiast rags chimed in. Ford is losing it's edge, they all chorused. Never mind the fact that the boring restyle sold better than ever, even capturing the sales crown throughout its four year run.
The criticism must have stung, for when Ford trotted out the newly redesigned Taurus for '96, there was no way anyone could claim that Ford had gotten timid again.
The new Taurus was everything the last version wasn't: fresh, bold, and distinctive. Naturally, those same detractors of the mild version now criticized the Taurus for being a little bit too bold, distinctive and unorthodox! Sometimes you just can't beat those Monday morning quarterbacks. Regardless about how you feel about the styling, which after all is a subjective matter anyway, you've got to hand it to Ford for having the chutzpah to engineer such a radical change on the nation's best selling car.
That first year, 1996, was a continuation of the last, and the Taurus took the sales crown again. The public, however, never fully warmed to the redesign, and it was handicapped initially by Ford's attempt to increase standard equipment -- and price -- and move the model upmarket a bit. The sales crown was captured through the introduction of a slightly decontented and cheaper base model and some very healthy dealer and customer incentives. The huge number of sales to rental fleets, including Ford's captive Hertz Rental Car, didn't hurt either. In 1997 Ford decided to stop the heavy subsidies, and the Taurus lost the sales race to the Toyota Camry. It hasn't reclaimed it since.
Both the Taurus and Sable are available in two body styles -- a four door sedan and four door station wagon. Initially, both were available in two trim levels. The base Taurus carried the GL moniker, while the base Sable was called the GS. The upmarket versions carried LX and LS badges, respectively. Shortly into the production run, a G model became the base model, forgoing things like cruise control, power locks, and a folding rear seat. For the '98 model year the Taurus GL was dropped, the LX became the entry model, and an SE occupied the top slot.
In most cases, the top trim levels came with more standard equipment, fancier trim, and a new 3.0L 200hp DOHC V6 (called Duratec by the marketing guys). Beginning in 1998, this engine was technically moved to the option list for the SE and LS, but most came with some sort of premium package that included this engine. The base models made do with the old, 3.0L OHV V6 generating 145hp. A 4-speed automatic was the only transmission choice.
Along the way, various regional and Touring Editions where marketed with special equipment packages, so don't be surprised to see a Sable or Taurus labeled as something other than the above designations.
Automotive journalists are forever complaining about the generic styling in the automotive world. Japanese and GM cars seem to get the most complaints, but all manufacturers have been fair game. As a rule, that seems to be changing now, but "soulless" styling was running rampart when this version of the Taurus/Sable debuted so the design was impossible to confuse with any other family sedan available.
That may have not been a wise strategy. From most angles we like the design very much. The front, front 3/4, and side views present a crisp, taut profile. Despite being larger than the model it replaced, it actually looks smaller. But then you look at the rear and rear 3/4 views. It looks like the stylists ran out of time and just grafted on a rear end. Both the Taurus and the Sable just don't pull those views off. Sometimes the little flares along the door sill (for aerodynamic purposes) appear ungainly, other times they don't.
The big differences between the two are the roofline and trunklid. On the Taurus, there is a six-window treatment on the C-pillar, while the Sable gets a more traditional four window treatment with thicker C-pillars. The Taurus' decklid slopes down, while the Sables extends a couple more inches to the rear and retreats into the rear bumper more abruptly. The Taurus gets a unique, and rather odd, oval rear window that carries over the oval design theme throughout the car.
Due to these design differences, the Sable gets a slightly larger trunk; the Taurus boasts a lower drag coefficient (.30 vs. .33) and slightly more rear seat headroom.
The wagon avoids most of these problems. The rear hatch is still oval, but it manages to look pretty good on the wagon. Of the two body styles, the wagon is the easy winner when it comes to design harmony.
Here again, Ford chose to break from traditional interior design cues to forge its new oval look. There isn't a rectangle to be found. And identical dash with a full set of gauges adorns the Taurus and Sable, with a choice of bucket seats with full console and transmission on the floor or bench seat with a unique and very useful fold down center seat cushion that can hold all kinds of drinks, change and stuff. When so equipped the transmission selector resides on the steering column.
When entering the cabin, the first object your eye is likely to fall on is the large oval in the center of the dash. It contains an unusual arrangement of radio and HVAC controls. Many reviewers gave it poor marks for ergonomics, but we think is works very well once you know your way around. It's hard to fault the rest of the controls, too.
Fabrics and colors are well coordinated, although the door panels have a very utilitarian look to them. The dash is covered with an anti-glare texture that does reduce glare but it hard to clean.
Room and Comfort
With a caveat, four people will be as comfortable in a Taurus as in another other mainstream sedan. The only objection we have is the driving position. It's too low. Get the power seat, and your problems are solved.
As we mentioned earlier, the Taurus/Sable twins are available as 5- and 6-passenger sedans. The wagons can be configured to hold anywhere from 5 to 8, with the optional rear seat that folds into the cargo floor.
The seats are well designed with just the right amount of firmness. While the two outboard passengers will be quite comfortable, we wouldn't recommend sitting in the middle front for very long. It's not comfortable at all. The middle rear seat passenger will deal with the usual hard cushion, but they'll be ok for a while. The rear seatback folds down to create a pass through into the trunk. The 3rd seat in the wagon is thinly padded and suitable only for kids.
Legroom is sufficient front and rear, but headroom gets a bit tight for tall rear seat passengers. The sharply raked C-pillar on the Sable and wagons force you to scrunch over when entering or exiting the rear. Both are a result of function following form.
Two of the examples we drove exhibited excessive wind noise at highway speeds. With triple sealed doors, this shouldn't happen. To be fair, we should also mention that we took a wagon for a weekend getaway, and there was no wind noise at all -- even at 80mph.
When comparing the new Taurus to the old, a few things are immediately apparent. The body is noticeably stiffer, it's quieter inside, and the steering is more responsive. And when pushed hard, the new Taurus behaves much better than the old one and though you won't confuse it for a BMW, it handles very well for a mainstream sedan. You'll get the usual front-drive understeer (the front end wants to keep going straight under high-speed cornering), but it's very predictable, not as pronounced as most, and body roll is within acceptable bounds.
In almost all circumstances, the Taurus rides very smoothly. Body motions always feel well controlled. The suspension feels a little harsh over sudden, large disturbances in the road, but it is never upset by them.
The Taurus/Sable duo are available with two different engines. The base engine, a 3.0 liter pushrod V6 generating 145hp, is adequate. It's reasonably responsive and unobtrusive most of the time. But it is not as quiet as most other cars in this category and gets downright noisy when pushed. With a fully loaded vehicle, it begins to feel overtaxed. The other engine, the DOHC 3.0 liter V6, is a jewel. It's very quiet and smooth, and moves the Taurus/Sable briskly. And unlike the base motor, it makes some wonderful noises when pushed hard.
The transmission works smoothly and seamlessly, particularly when mated to the more powerful engine. We would still have to rate it a notch below the best from Japan and GM however.
Braking chores are handled by a front disc/rear drum setup on the Taurus and Sable sedans. All wagons were equipped with four-wheel disc brakes. An anti-lock brake system (ABS) was optional which included four wheel discs. Both systems work well, with ABS giving an extra measure of control in slippery conditions.
On a car that was introduced only four years ago, you would expect that a full complement of safety items accompanies every Taurus/Sable. Dual front air bags and adjustable seatbelts are standard fare, along with child safety locks.
ABS braking was originally intended to be standard equipment, but for cost reasons was made optional.
Government crash testing of the Taurus resulted in an very good (4-stars) score for the '96-'98 models, and an excellent (5-stars) for the 1999 model. The Institute for Highway Safety awarded the Taurus the highest rating of any midsize sedan.
The latest generation Taurus/Sable has amassed a good, but not exceptional, reliability record when compared to the best in this class, the Toyota Camry. Major components rarely fail, but we have had occasional reports of electrical gremlins and transmission troubles through our customer helpline.
All were backed by a 3yr - 36,000 mile bumper to bumper warranty, so there will be plenty of models out there with the original warranty still in effect.
If your Taurus does need a trip to the shop, chances are that it won't lighten your wallet too much, at least when compared to it's import competition.
Maintenance intervals are somewhat below average, too . First coolant change isn't specified until 50,000 miles (every 30,000 miles after that), and the spark plugs are good for 100,000 miles. Even the DOHC motor doesn't require timing belt service, since it uses a chain. That usually ranges anywhere from $250 to $700 on it's Japanese rivals.
We've always felt that the Taurus represents a terrific value as a used car. It does not have the resale value of an Accord or Camry, so you can pick up good examples for remarkably little money. And over the long haul, your pocket book will appreciate the relatively low service and maintenance costs.
Our choice would be a loaded LX or LS version with the sweet twin-cam engine. You'll be getting a sophisticated, quick and comfortable sedan for the price of a new economy car.
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