When we drove the 1998 Ford Taurus SHO, we were expecting to write a farewell story about this performance-oriented family sedan. Pundits were securing the last nails in the SHO's coffin, and we were fully expecting the car to be extinct by 1999.
But wait! It's still breathing! We have a pulse! Stop the funeral, folks. The Taurus Super High Output ain't dead. The SHO must go on. Just barely.
Two years ago, when the Taurus was redesigned to its current egg shape, we drove the SHO - equipped with a Yamaha V8 - for the first time. We were not very impressed. The odd new shape of the car, combined with a somewhat sluggish motor and lack of sporty manual transmission, confirmed our worst fears: Ford was letting their sports sedan wither.
Since then, the Taurus has changed very little, unless you count the NASCAR Taurus lookalike that replaced the extinct Thunderbird in Winston Cup racing. But that's just marketing. Real changes to the car itself have been on hold since '96.
This year's Taurus line received a minor facelift, and the equipment levels and trim names have been altered over the past two years, but the recipe is still the same. For the SHO, all the equipment that was optional in 1996 is standard in 1998. Most SHO buyers were opting for the CD changer, moonroof and leather seats anyway, so that equipment was simply added to the package, and voila! The price is just about the same. In fact, our most recent test car, equipped the same as the car we tested two years ago, is actually $40 less For starters, the 3.4-liter 32-valve DOHC V8 is a nice motor. Its output is high, with 235 horsepower at 6100 rpm and 230 foot-pounds of torque at 4800 rpm, but not what we'd term "Super High." After all, the newcomer LH-series sedans from Chrysler output 18 more horsepower and 25 more foot-pounds of torque from a six cylinder (albeit larger displacement) motor. And the Chrysler sedans don't mention anything about power in their names. .
This time, we spent a more extended period of time behind the wheel, going cross-country on a pair of 18- hour drives. Our feelings about the car are the same as ever: it's fast but not quick, it's comfortable but not roomy, and it's priced fairly but not competitively.
The premium fuel-sucking V8 of the SHO does sound impressive, but sedan buyers these days are more interested in performance than audible annoyances. On our mostly highway commuting, we picked up an average of 22.5 mpg. Not bad, considering how lead-footed we like to drive. But from starts, the SHO is not a tire shredder.
It's on the open highway that this car likes to stretch its legs, which incidentally is perfect for long commutes. The firm suspension of the SHO is much better at stabilizing lateral motion than the other Taurus sedans, but even the SHO is not made for slaloms.
Styling is the sticking point with this car: you either love it or you hate it at first glance. But after time - after days and days seated in the power-adjustable driver's seat - the Taurus's looks have grown on this writer. The spoiler still looks horribly tacked on, and the interior is in immediate need of a redesign, but the exterior is quite full of character and charm. The first day driving our test car, someone actually stopped us to compliment the car's striking good looks.
"Hey! That's great! What a gorgeous car!"
I couldn't tell if the guy was being serious or not, so I replied, "Yeah, too bad it's not mine."
"Well, you've got the keys, so that's close enough," he said. "I really like that styling." The crazy bugger was staring directly at the SHO's bizarre rear spoiler, so we concluded he must have been on some sort of medication.
From the time we spent locked inside this interstate gobbler, we can come up with few nice things to say about its ergonomics. The seats were never uncomfortable unless you happened to be seated in the back - in which case the ceiling is far too low and the legroom is cramped. Driver controls are intuitive except for the radio and climate control buttons, which should only be operated by the front passenger -- for safety's sake. Even after a week behind the wheel, we never could get the hang of the center console's oblong-distorted arrangement.
Ford needs to get back to the basics in regard to the SHO. This sedan should have an available manual transmission, or, failing that, at least an automanual transmission, like Chrysler's AutoStick. It should come with an integrated spoiler or none at all. It should have more logic behind its interior design. And Ford should hurry up with it all, or the SHO will become extinct by virtue of its failure to adapt to the competition.
Sportier and more fun-to-drive sedans can be found at Acura, Audi, BMW, Chrysler, Lexus, Mercedes, Nissan, Pontiac, Volkswagen and Volvo. In the race to be the best sports sedan, NASCAR can only keep up appearances until the Thunderbird is redesigned...