Damn, she got the wheels off the ground!
So we're riding in the 2010 Ford Taurus SHO at the Dearborn proving ground. Christina Rodriguez, the lead vehicle dynamics development engineer for the Taurus, is at the wheel. This woman can drive. She even looks like Danica Patrick's sister.
Ford's public relations team has been very careful to tell us that this is not a production car. It's a preproduction prototype, they say. Hand-built, not representative of production, an engineering workhorse, no telling if it'll burst into flames or not. They do everything except hand us a parachute.
The tire squealing gets louder. We look out the window at the scenery, which is in a state of serious blur. Then we try to get a glimpse of the speedometer, which unfortunately is protected from glare deep within a shroud on the instrument binnacle so we can't see it.
Rodriguez looks across at us and grins beneath her racing helmet. We hang on tighter. The tires are starting to squeal a little louder again.
We're Not in Chicago Anymore, Toto
We first told you about the 2010 Ford Taurus SHO when it debuted at the 2009 Chicago Auto Show. Ford is hoping to catch the same lightning in a bottle as it did in 1989, when it dropped a Yamaha-built 3.0-liter V6 into its front-wheel-drive sedan. Americans were ready for a muscle car, and the Taurus SHO (super high output) became a phenomenon; 100,000 were sold by the time the car went out of production at the end of 1999.
Just as before, the SHO is meant to give the Taurus a little traction in the imagination of Americans, but the hardware is a little different this time. The centerpiece is a new engine that showcases Ford's new EcoBoost family. The twin-turbo 3,496cc V6 makes 365 horsepower at 5,500 rpm and 350 pound-feet of torque at 3,500 rpm. EcoBoost is Ford's trade name for its use of direct injection and turbocharging, a combination that gives you good fuel economy, good throttle response and good power.
The transmission is a heavy-duty version of the Lincoln MKS's six-speed automatic that'll give you rev-matched downshifts. The Haldex all-wheel-drive system has also been altered to send more of the torque to the rear wheels. The SHO's regular final-drive ratio is 2.77:1 and the suspension calibration is about 10 percent stiffer than the standard Taurus.
Of course, this prototype has the SHO Performance package, which includes an even more aggressive suspension setup with rear springs that are 9 percent stiffer, dampers that are 20 percent stiffer, plus a stiffer rear antiroll bar. The electrically boosted power steering gets a more responsive calibration, and a Sport mode for the stability control is more tolerant of enthusiastic driving. And finally the package has a shorter 3.16:1 final-drive ratio that gets you quicker acceleration, high-performance brake pads to resist fade and summer-compound 20-inch tires to make it all work.
The Engineer Speaks
Christina Rodriguez has been working on the 2010 Taurus since 2001 when the development of the original Five Hundred began. She's the only woman at Ford to have achieved status as a vehicle dynamics development engineer, a job she describes as equal parts engineer, race driver and vehicle psychologist.
Rodriguez explains, "As an engineer, I need to make sure the car is safe, because you don't want any unpleasant surprises. As a race driver, I have to make sure the car handles well. And then I have to tune the car to have the right personality for being the latest Ford."
Speaking like a good corporate citizen, she explains how cars exhibit personality: "Some cars have a more relaxed personality, so everything about the way they drive is soft and slower to react. New Fords have a DNA that is sportier, more fun to drive, more responsive and more alive, so they need to feel that way."
Now It's SHO-Time
We're in what Rodriguez refers to as TT prototype, a car quite a few steps away from production. There's a big yellow sticker on the windshield to identify the car's status, and someone has used a Sharpie to write engineering code on each of the cast-aluminum 20-inch wheels. The tires are the summer-compound Goodyear Eagle F1s from the SHO Performance package, but various bits of body and interior trim won't make it to production. This car is a work in progress.
Rodriguez says, "The only thing that's production intent on this car is the suspension. I know the motor calculations are close, but I'm not totally sure." She lights the engine and slides the SHO's shifter past Drive directly to Sport.
At idle, the twin-turbo EcoBoost V6 turbo sounds quiet and feels smooth. As we accelerate onto the proving ground, the part-throttle shifts from the six-speed 6F55 SelectShift transmission are silky. Swinging onto a high-speed section of the proving grounds, Rodriguez goes WOT. She uses the shift paddles on the steering wheel. You pull either paddle for an upshift and push forward for a rev-matched downshift.
The big Taurus surges forward effortlessly, delivering what you'd expect given the V6's power curves and the 4,368 pounds that have to be motivated. Under boost, the V6 emits a nice growl, but most of the noise comes from under the hood, not the dual exhaust. There's a commendable lack of wind noise.
Watching Rodriguez at the wheel, we notice how her hands are relaxed, showing her confidence in the SHO's suspension. And the SHO itself seems unfazed by the speed at which she's driving.
When Bulls Fly
Heavy on the brakes, Rodriguez arcs into a banked corner that spins us around for another blast en route to the handling course. The tight Dearborn track features abrupt elevation changes and sinister off-camber corners. At first, Rodriguez takes it easy — not for her sake, but for mine. Even at a modest pace, the SHO's ease in these transitions speaks volumes about the competency of its chassis tuning.
Rodriguez increases the pace, talking casually as she fluidly guides the SHO from apex to apex. The faster she drives, the smaller the SHO seems to get. "After doing this for 12 years, I know what a car should feel like, and I don't get questioned anymore," she says. "We start with models generated by computer-aided engineering. It gives us starting points for spring rates, dampers, antiroll bar thicknesses, etc. After that, everything we do is by the seat of the pants."
One section of the course includes a rise that fully compresses the suspension. Cresting the hill at speed, the suspension uncorks to full rebound. Later as we watch from the grassy infield, the SHO looks just as impressive as it feels from the passenger seat. Even as the Taurus flies over the big crest and returns to Earth, it settles easily with no drama.
Rodriguez says, "In this job, your body has to become a precisely calibrated instrument. It's got to measure what can't be measured and can understand what the car's mechanicals are doing. It takes awhile to tune your body, but I've been working on this particular chassis for eight years, so I really know what it's capable of and how to make it respond."
Back to Earth
After the handling course, Rodriguez drives to a test area with roads that look like the cratered surface streets of southeast Michigan, where frost heaves do their work every year. And even though this SHO is a well-used prototype, its body seems tight and rattle-free.
This ride isn't the same as a drive of the real car out in the real world, but we have to admit that we're impressed. We'll see what happens once we're able to exchange this pre-production prototype for a real production car and get the steering wheel in our own hands.
Rodriguez says, "This car is really my pride and joy." And as she stops the engine with the button on the dash of the 2010 Ford Taurus SHO, she says more to herself than to us, "I think I've got the best job at Ford."