Once Ford's mainstay vehicle, the Taurus was for years America's best-selling car. Now, however, as it approaches the end of its life cycle, the Taurus' glory days are long past. It's being succeeded by the larger Ford Five Hundred and, beginning in fall 2005, by the somewhat smaller Ford Fusion sedan, as well. The Five Hundred is a superior car, and we expect the Fusion (based on the laudable Mazda6) will be, too. For those who still want a Taurus--primarily car-rental agencies and other fleet buyers--Ford is still making them, in just two trim levels, the base SE and more deluxe SEL. The station wagon, however, will be dropped after the '05 model year, and Mercury's Taurus twin, the Sable, has already ended production. In the Taurus' final year, Ford is de-emphasizing retail sales of the car, so dealers might not have significant stocks of the car on hand.
The second-generation Taurus launched for the 1996 model year with a dramatic body style that polarized opinion from Day One. Ford took the ovoid theme to the limit, with the curvaceous, porpoise-shaped sheetmetal festooned with circles. Facing criticism, Ford squared off some curves, most noticeably with the rear window, for 2000. The still-sleek, sculpted shape makes the car appear smaller than it is. You may be surprised to learn that the interior and trunk volume edge out those of the seemingly larger Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, and Toyota Camry, with key passenger dimensions overlapping these tough competitors'. Given the controversial styling, and subsequent expensive restyle, it no coincidence that the new Ford Five Hundred's design, clean and plain outside but rich and roomy inside, is very different from that of the Taurus. Once a radical design, the lame-duck Taurus now looks dated.
The Taurus is one of the few remaining sedans to still offer three-across front seating: two buckets and one very cramped center seat that flips forward to make a roomy center storage console. Interior space is respectable, but the sloping roofline means taller passengers need to watch their heads when entering and exiting the back seat. There isn't a car on the market with a plainer, less-exciting interior design. The SEL has fancy wood-look trim on the steering wheel and shifter, but overall the Taurus's interior materials are not as nice as those used in many newer competitors. The layout of the car's controls and switches is relatively simple and straightforward. As in many midsize sedans, the rear seatback can be folded forward to allow long cargo to extend into the cabin from the trunk.
Ford touts what it calls the "Personal Safety System" in the Taurus, which consists chiefly of front seatbelt pretensioners and force limiters, as well as two-stage front airbags, which deploy with varying force, depending on the need. These technologies are widely available on other cars. The Taurus has performed well in crash tests, but anyone who is seriously concerned about passenger protection will want to get the optional Safety and Security Package, which includes side airbags, anti-lock brakes, and traction control. The package is an extra-cost option on both the SE and SEL, although its components are also available piecemeal. Stability control and side-curtain airbags aren't available on the Taurus.