First Drive: 2008 Ford Taurus

2008 Ford Taurus First Drive

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2008 Ford Taurus Sedan

(3.5L V6 6-speed Automatic)

500 Ways It's Not a Five Hundred

A lot can happen in 30 days. The moon makes one orbit of Earth and you can try out a Rite Life Power Juicer with a no-hassle money-back guarantee. A large sedan can also undergo an identity crisis and become the 2008 Ford Taurus.

On January 7, 2007, the vehicle you see here was introduced at the Detroit auto show as the updated Ford Five Hundred. One month later after some rather sobering market research followed by some corporate soul-searching, the same car was reintroduced at the Chicago auto show as the 2008 Ford Taurus.

For better or worse, Ford has realized that four out of five car buyers have heard of the Taurus, which sold almost 7 million units in the nameplate's 21 years on the market, and the same couldn't be said of the slow-selling Five Hundred. You can't buy the kind of brand awareness the Taurus has. Well, actually you could, but Ford estimates it would cost a half billion dollars.

So Ford has dusted off the Taurus tag after a one-year hiatus and rebadged the Ford Five Hundred. Yet it's the 500 or so other changes that have been made to transform the old Five Hundred into the 2008 Taurus that ultimately prove that there's more to this exercise than just a marketing experiment thrown together in 30 days.

You Asked for More Power
Of all the modifications Ford has made to turn the Five Hundred into the Taurus, none are as important as those under the hood. The fuel-sipping, 203-horsepower 3.0-liter V6 that proved woefully inadequate to the task of motivating a 3,643-pound full-size sedan is gone. Replacing it is the 3.5-liter V6 recently introduced by the Ford Edge crossover sport-utility, and it pumps up the Taurus' muscle to 260 hp and 245 pound-feet of torque.

Just as important, the V6 still preserves this car's green-friendly identity, because fuel-efficiency has improved 10 percent and the air emissions are so squeaky clean that the Taurus qualifies as a Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle (PZEV) in California.

While nobody will ever call the Taurus quick, the drivetrain no longer feels overwhelmed. Thrust off the line is strong, and charging up highway on-ramps is now more easily accomplished. Ford estimates a front-wheel-drive Taurus accelerates to 60 mph in less than 8 seconds. Although this makes it a second faster than the Five Hundred, the Taurus is still about a second slower than a Hyundai Azera or Toyota Avalon.

On the upside, though, the crummy continuously variable transmission that was previously connected to the all-wheel-drive Five Hundred has been tossed into the crusher, replaced by the Ford Edge's six-speed automatic. (Both front- and all-wheel-drive Taurus models get this transmission.) This six-speed auto shifts up through the gears with wonderful smoothness, but it's calibrated for fuel economy at all times, so it's slow to downshift, and it often requires you to floor the accelerator just to get the tranny to drop down a gear and unleash the rather noisy 260 horses.

Safe and (a Lack of) Sound
It's hard to argue with Ford's assertion that a comfortable ride and quiet cabin are of paramount importance to buyers in the full-size sedan segment. Accordingly, engineers have thoroughly revised the suspension tune, so there are new dampers and springs, while revised shock towers increase front suspension travel by 10 percent.

We've driven the 2007 Five Hundred and 2008 Taurus back-to-back, and the new car feels notably cushier and soaks up road imperfections without becoming nautical. Of course, there's more body roll in evidence, and the Taurus doesn't feel as composed on a mountain road as the Five Hundred. Perhaps the Taurus' target buyers in gloriously flat Boca Raton, Florida, will find this an acceptable trade-off.

Ford says it has tried hard to make the Taurus as quiet as a tomb, something that consumers apparently equate with overall quality. The Taurus has a new package of acoustic insulation that includes foam pellets in the A-pillars to reduce wind noise and an exclusive sound-deadening material called Sonosorb placed throughout the car that quiets it by 20 percent.

These efforts make the Taurus as tranquil as a Toyota Avalon at 30 mph. The Taurus apparently is more hushed than all other full-size family sedans, and comes close to approaching the luxury-car standard of Cadillac and Lexus.

Safety is a primary marketing message for the new Taurus, and Volvo's input has helped this car earn a five-star rating in four of the five government crash tests. (It got four stars in rollover.) Side airbags and full-length curtain airbags are standard, although stability control is curiously only an option.

A New Group of Adults
Now that the Taurus has assumed the Five Hundred's spot in the Ford lineup, it competes in a segment that's apt to be perused by older shoppers more inclined to full-size cars from domestic brands.

And full-size it certainly is. The 2008 Taurus boasts interior dimensions larger than all its competitors, and it offers 107.1 cubic feet of interior passenger volume. The trunk measures a cavernous 21.3 cubic feet, which Ford says is big enough to hold eight golf bags. Actually, it's hard to think of a time when you'd need to carry eight golf bags in a five-passenger vehicle. Perhaps a golf-club salesman would find it useful.

As in the Five Hundred, the front seats of the Taurus hover about a foot off the floor in an effort to create a commanding, SUV-like driving position. While the great outward visibility might be very reassuring to little old ladies who like to watch The Golden Girls on cable, the satisfaction of the height-challenged Estelle Gettys of this world might be balanced by the consternation of the statuesque Bea Arthurs, who will find that their hair brushes the roof of a car that supposedly has best-in-class headroom.

A New Look for New Friends
While it still won't be making the cover of Auto & Design, the Taurus is certainly more eye-catching than the mundane Five Hundred. What Ford describes as an orbit of chrome stretches from the increasingly ubiquitous Ford three-bar grille to the rear license plate mustache. Fender vents seem to be a necessity these days, so they've been tacked on as well.

Inside the Taurus, the overall layout of the Five Hundred remains in place, but details like revised gauges, classier wood trim and chrome touches here and there liven things up. Even with chrome trim, Ford's standard radio faceplate looks cheap and out of place in an otherwise attractive and rich-looking dash. Unaffectionately known as "the brick" inside Ford, the faceplate's days are thankfully numbered.

Later in the fall, Ford's high-tech Sync communication system codeveloped with Microsoft, will be available for the Taurus. This ground-breaking technology has the ability to access a driver's cell phone, iPod or other MP3 device via the car's stereo controls and voice commands.

The Importance of Change No. 501
With the 2008 Taurus, Ford has simply taken what already was a pretty decent vehicle in the Five Hundred and given it a few things to better attract buyers, like more power, more attractive looks and a more recognizable name.

The Taurus also represents a tremendous bargain, as its base price comes in at just $23,245. Even a fully loaded Taurus Limited rings in at almost $5,000 less than a comparably equipped Toyota Avalon, while the all-wheel-drive Taurus undercuts the AWD Chrysler 300 (its closest competitor) by a similar margin.

Of course, the brand recognition Ford has sought with the revival of the Taurus nameplate could cut both ways, as the indifferent quality and disastrous depreciation of the Taurus in its last days as the choice of fleet programs might not be a great memory for some. Yet the Taurus once was the symbol of the American car industry's answer to Japan and the darling of the business media. Even now, Taurus is still the most recognizable Ford nameplate after F-150 and Mustang.

Of the 500 changes made to the Five Hundred in this revised car, the last-second 501st change that has made it the 2008 Ford Taurus might be the most important.

Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.

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