Automotive historians are already placing Ford's original Taurus among the industry's benchmark cars. The 1986 model broke new ground with a softly sculpted, aero-look design amid an era of boxy, cookie-cutter automobiles. By the beginning of the decade Taurus was an established bestseller, and -- behind a fairly functional and competent platform and a successful freshening in 1992 -- Ford's bread-and-butter family sedan rode a wave of popularity that lasted a surprising 10 years.
But then came the 1996 redesign, and Taurus soon fell from its lofty perch atop the family-sedan world like a rock to the bottom of a pond. The blue-oval stylists had used oval shapes and curves in an attempt to reinvent the Taurus, but some say the designers just went too far. Even the instrument panel, rear glass and taillights carried an oval theme. Many observers thought the Taurus' sideswept, oval headlamps and low, oval grille opening made the car look like a giant fish. But a good many other people -- us included -- found more fault with the car itself than with its fish-faced facade.
Enter the redesigned 2000 Ford Taurus, with an all-new look and an all-new direction. For the first time since its introduction, Taurus has traded-in its trend-setting styling mantle for a cutting-edge safety theme, following in the footsteps of the old Ford marketing campaign of the 1950s. More importantly, Ford engineers also chased improvements in such areas as interior roominess and comfort, trunk space, driveline performance, and ride and handling, as well as build quality and durability.
The end result is a vastly better car that also happens to be better looking. While we give Ford credit for trying to be innovative with the design of the 1996-99 Taurus (you'll never hit a home run unless you swing for the fences), one look at the 2000 car will tell you that its exterior styling wasn't meant to set the world on edge. Not an earth-shattering new shape, mind you, but certainly not some offensive aquatic anomaly, either.
Exchanging its old, rolling curves for some new creases, the 2000 Taurus touts contemporary sedan styling with a rakish stance, set off by angular clear-lens headlamps and large taillamps. Only the windshield, side glass and doors are carryover, meaning all the rest of the sheetmetal is new, including a revamped roof with a rectangular rear window that provides nearly a 2-inch improvement in rear headroom (and better air management for NASCAR racers, too, no doubt).
The new hood is higher at both the front and the cowl, where a taller back edge helps reduce wind noise and direct more air (and water) over the wipers. A wider grille opening allows more fresh air into the engine compartment. Out back, the new decklid is some 4 inches higher at the rear edge, and its opening width is increased 2 inches. Trunk capacity is up 1.2 cubic feet from last year's car (to 17 cubic feet) and the sedan now features grocery-bag cargo hooks and an emergency trunklid release handle.
New front and rear fascias flow into flared front and rear fenders to help accentuate the larger wheels and tires. The bigger, wider wheels and now-standard 215/60R-16 all-season rubber not only give the new Taurus a wider track, but go a long way to improve the ride and overall handling -- one of our concerns with the previous car. Ford also retuned the suspension with new front geometry, improved roll control and revised spring rates and rear strut valving for a plusher, less twitchy ride quality.
After barely a minute behind the wheel of the new Taurus, we immediately noticed two changes that make a significant difference in overall driving enjoyment. First was the revamped steering, which delivers more precision and vastly improved on-center road feel. With new pump valving, a pulse suppressor and a healthier boost curve, the power steering had no difficulty keeping up with abrupt driver inputs, even along some twisty two-lane back roads that we drove in and around Charlottesville, Va. The other was the increased power and torque in both V6 engines, with improved transaxle performance.
Thanks to a retuned intake manifold, revised camshaft profiles and lighter-weight valves, the standard Vulcan 3.0-liter V6 now makes 155 horsepower (10 more than in '99) at 4,900 rpm and 185 foot-pounds of torque (15 more than last year) at 3,950 revs. Midrange acceleration is more satisfying, and so is the reduction in noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) and better sound-deadening that keeps engine roar to a minimum.
Even more refinement went into the four-valve Duratec 3.0-liter V6, which gets a horsepower boost to 200 (that's up 15 from last year) and an additional 15 foot-pounds of torque (now also 200) at the same 4,400 rpm as in '99. We weren't fond of the lack of smoothness and low-end grunt in last year's version, and were eager to try out the improved Duratec to see if it still needed to be revved hard to make power. While we can report an improvement in performance feel from this engine, our short time with it can't quite trace it to the gains in NVH or the vastly improved transmission shift quality.
What we're certain of is that the Duratec motor feels and sounds more refined under full- throttle starts, and much of that has to do with its reworked "tumble-port" combustion system and a new air pickup that delivers colder air with reduced noise. The engine block itself has been stiffened and yet weighs some 30 pounds less, thanks to composite cam covers and intake manifold as well as a fabricated-steel right exhaust manifold that reduces assembly complexity. Ford engineers told us that the improved manifold allows the use of a single exhaust system that has the same back-pressure as the previous dual-exhaust setup. Even the engine mounts have been redesigned to dial out vibration.
Perhaps our biggest complaint about the previous Taurus was the often-delayed and rather harsh downshifts provided by its four-speed overdrive transmissions. In cars equipped with the Duratec V6, the transaxles seemed to constantly hunt between gears as we tried to find a responsive portion of the engine's powerband. Engineers responded with several enhancements designed to improve shift quality, and from our drive they appear to have succeeded. Shift scheduling has been refined by the use of adaptive shift control programming that employs a digital range selector. Other efforts went into bolstering durability, which had been a warranty issue with some owners.
Inside, a cleaner, more functional interior greets passengers without the goofy, football-shaped center stack from the previous model. Headroom both front and rear is noticeably improved, while the redesigned dashboard and buttons make audio and climate controls more intuitive. Better stowage space and cupholders, additional power points, upgraded cloth and carpeting and much better-looking trim materials help us forget the low-buck, rental-car look of last year's base car. And the 2000 Taurus is the first American automobile to offer power-adjustable accelerator and brake pedals. The whole assembly can move toward the driver 3 inches so that those short in stature don't have to sit so close to the steering wheel to reach the pedals.
We liked other detail differences in the new Taurus' interior, such as the barrel-style air registers, beefier headrests, extra map pockets, thick four-spoke steering wheel and ergonomically designed door pulls with an extra-soft covering. And even the front seat's flip-up center bottom cushion that reveals the front storage compartments and cupholders has been revamped so that it folds flat to the floor rather than block the center stack, like before. Our only disappointment was with the seats, which could have offered more comfort and support for those of us whose backsides support a 200-pound frame.
No, we didn't forget all the safety stuff that is dominating the headlines about the new Taurus. We mention it only now because despite all the hype over the 2000 model, last year's Taurus was a pretty safe car to begin with. The design of the "safety cage crumple zone" on the '99 car helped it become the only midsize sedan priced below $20,000 to achieve the government's highest possible frontal crash test rating -- five stars for both driver and front-seat passenger. And that's without the Personal Safety System (PSS).
Just what is PSS? It's the name Ford gives to the various safety systems used in the 2000 Taurus. It combines dual-stage inflating airbags with crash-severity, front-seat safety-belt usage and driver seat-position sensors -- all linked together to determine the energy level of airbag deployments during frontal collisions. The system also uses front seatbelt pre-tensioners and energy management retractors, and offers as an option the availability of front-seat, side airbags that deploy independently during side impacts.
Ford also touts improvements to the braking system, and the fact that all-speed traction control combined with ABS is available for the first time in 2000. But brakes have never been a Ford strong suit, and it looks like 2000 will be no different. We think offering just a front disc/rear drum system without ABS on the LX is woefully inadequate. Sure, ABS is standard on the SE Sedan and four-wheel discs with ABS comes on the SE Wagon, but four-wheel discs with ABS should be at least an option across the board. Cost-saving measures shouldn't involve skipping the use of the best brake hardware available.
The 2000 Taurus will arrive at dealerships in November in two trim levels, the base LX Sedan and the slightly uplevel SE Sedan. An SE Wagon is also available, albeit with the previous wagon's rear greenhouse unchanged. Sorry, sports fans, the high-output SHO model has been dropped. But enthusiasts will tell you that the SHO didn't deserve to go on, what with its $30,000 sticker, lack of a manual transmission, and 32-valve V8 that made just 235 horsepower. Obviously, putting together such high-performance variants is a job better left to the likes of the gearheads at Ford's Special Vehicle Team.
Ford positions the 2000 Taurus as a safety leader. Now, we don't mean to downplay the importance of safety, especially in the family-car segment. But the real story about the 2000 Taurus is that Ford has fixed many of the functional things that were wrong with the previous model -- and safety wasn't one of them. Fact is, there are more than 900 new parts on the 2000 Taurus, which translates into lots of changes in nearly every area of the vehicle. That -- and the fact that it doesn't look like a big fish anymore -- is what you really need to know about this car, no matter what Ford's marketing types might say.