The news that Ford would slap the Taurus name and the company's suddenly ubiquitous three-bar grille on the slow-selling Five Hundred sedan was greeted with hosannas by the Detroit-based automotive press, which acted as if Ford's management team had suddenly found the Golden Key to Success. Well, the early results are now in, and the one-time best-selling nameplate and the chromey new face have done exactly nothing to lift sales. Imagine.
The hew and cry over dropping and then bringing back the Taurus name, as well as the endless derision of the admittedly plain design--which was, of course, an overreaction to the different-just-to-be-different second-generation Taurus (whose oval-mad styling was supposed to echo the Ford logo)--is all just noise. Overlooked is the fact that the Taurus-ne-Five Hundred actually has a lot to offer.
To Ford's credit, its engineers tried to give their mainstream sedan some of the qualities that buyers liked in the company's successful SUVs. They raised the seating position in order to provide that commanding view of the road that SUV owners were always going on about, and they added the option of all-wheel drive, because buyers in the Snow Belt often gave that as a justification for an SUV purchase. They also eliminated the cramped sedan feeling of the previous Taurus, creating a car that is exceedingly spacious, with more interior room than a Chrysler 300 or a Toyota Avalon.
Unfortunately, the original 3.0-liter V-6 was underpowered, and a continuously variable transmission designed to maximize what little power there was ended up exacerbating the problem by highlighting the engine's droning. A dour, cost-cut interior was another failing.
The important news about the 2008 Taurus has nothing to do with a new name or more chrome, it's the fact that Ford has addressed both of the car's actual shortcomings, with varying degrees of success.
A new, 3.5-liter V-6, "the engine we were supposed to have all along," in the words of a now-retired Ford executive, raises power output from 203 hp to 263 hp, enough to move this 3741-pound family sedan easily. The CVT has been dumped in favor of a six-speed automatic, and more sound-deadening material has been added, making for a much quieter interior. The ride remains comfortable without being floaty, but the steering and handling still do nothing to set an enthusiast's heart afire. Nor has the gussied-up cabin been transformed into a sybarite's delight, although it is less cheap-looking than before.
Despite getting off to a bad start, the Five Hundred was a decent car, and the new Taurus is a better one. But if it's the nameplate that's really the key to sales success, maybe Ford marketers need to reach back even further. Maybe they should call it the Model T.