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First Drive: 2013 Ford Taurus SHO Performance Package

Ford took a lot of flack for the 2010 Taurus SHO. A big car with a big engine, the SHO had straight-line speed in spades, but when it came to braking, Ford's full-size car couldn't handle the pressure. Plagued by awkward pedal modulation and serious brake fade, the Super High Output Taurus drove more like a nostalgic marketing exercise than a red-blooded engineering effort. Ford engineers rectified several shortcomings on all Taurus models with a 2013 update, but they're especially eager to win back respect for the SHO. To that end, they're making even loftier claims about the new, optional Performance Package: they say that this 4300-pound family car is track-ready.

Key to that claim is an upgraded cooling system that, while totally unsexy from a marketing perspective, allows the SHO to be driven hard for more laps. There's a thicker radiator, an oil cooler, and a new cooling circuit that passes over the power transfer unit responsible for sending torque to the rear wheels.

Engine output is the same 365 hp and 350 lb-ft of torque but acceleration of the Performance Package version benefits from a shorter 3.16:1 final-drive ratio (compared to the SHO's standard 2.77:1 ratio). While not particularly characterful, the twin-turbo V-6 dishes out big torque through a wide rpm range and puts it to the ground via a six-speed automatic and all-wheel drive. With our test equipment, we recorded a 5.4-second run to 60 mph (without rollout) and a 13.9-second quarter-mile run at 103 mph. The performance package also raises the top speed from 131 mph to 140 mph.

Although they're a significant improvement over the old, convoluted design, the small, plasticky paddle shifters remain an afterthought. Calling gear changes manually is met with a slow response, and upshifts occur automatically at redline. And the engine's barely audible note makes it difficult to keep track of how quickly it's spinning without looking down at the digital tachometer. It's much more enjoyable to leave the transmission in sport mode and trust its well-honed logic.

The bulk of the Performance Package improvements involve the chassis, with retuned electric power steering, performance brake pads, a stiffer suspension, sport and off modes for the stability control, and grippy Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar tires mounted on 20-inch wheels. At the limit of adhesion, the SHO is a very stable, controlled car but the sport-mode stability control is still eager to help this nose-heavy car bend through a turn. With stability control defeated, you'll notice that the brakes have stopped intervening and the tendency to understeer is increased, but there isn't a significant change in handling behavior.

The Performance Package SHO also reaps the benefits of changes made to the entire Taurus lineup for 2013. By removing the bushings between the steering rack and the subframe, the steering is more responsive to inputs and more communicative over pavement imperfections. It's so effective that the Taurus we lapped around Grattan Raceway transmitted more road feel through its partial-Alcantara steering wheel than the new Porsche 911. Ford also continues to impress with its calibration of electric power steering systems, a skill that still eludes many automakers.

We were unable to verify Ford's claims that the brakes are truly fade free, as our track driving was limited to just two laps at a time, but the hardware upgrades have been significant. In addition to more aggressive brake pads, the Performance Package improves the calipers with stainless steel pistons that are cross-drilled for cooling purposes and fitted with special silicone seals that keep heat from passing into the brake fluid. All Tauruses now use ventilated discs at the rear and the front discs feature more cooling fins than last year's car. Around the racetrack, the SHO provided consistent and confident pedal feel. On the road, however, we still found the pedal a bit soft for our tastes. There's still a decent amount of travel in the pedal before braking becomes a function of pressure, and it's not until that point that the driver can truly modulate the effort.

The SHO's biggest weaknesses have nothing to do with performance, though. If you're looking to pilot a full-size four-door around a racetrack, you won't find a more willing chassis than this Taurus. Instead, the SHO -- as with lesser Taurus models -- shows its faults in the suburban settings where it'll be used most. The Taurus's cabin isn't nearly as large as those of many competitors. It's as if every bit of plastic and fabric has puffed up to twice its normal size, making the large-car cabin feel much smaller than it should. The track experience also suffers from a driving position with crossover-like ergonomics and seats that are swollen like a microwaved marshmallow. These are the quirks that might lead you to America's other full-size sedan with a performance pedigree. It may not be as obedient around a track, but a Dodge Charger R/T leaves quite the impression with its burly V-8, rear-wheel drive, bold styling, and limo-like spaciousness.

Adding the Performance Package to a SHO costs $1995 on top of the car's $39,995 base price. Even if you have no intentions of flogging your full-size sedan at the track, the Performance Package offers some meaningful incentives to the SHO buyer like the shorter final-drive ratio, the stability control sport mode, and the Alcantara steering wheel. And if you do have plans to lay down some laps, we suspect you'll be quite pleased to find that this SHO lives up to its promises.

On sale: Now
Price: $39,995/$41,990 (SHO/SHO Performance Package)
Engine: 3.5L twin-turbo V-6, 365 hp, 350 lb-ft
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Drive: 4-wheel
EPA Mileage: 17/25 mpg