After a brief hiatus, one of the most successful cars in the history of Ford Motor Company will soon be back in showrooms. The restyled 2010 Ford Taurus rolled out of its Chicago assembly plant today.
The launch of the next generation Taurus, Ford's flagship sedan, marks what the automaker hopes is a milestone in the company's reinvention.
But the launch of the new Taurus is also a test of whether consumers will once again want full-size sedans.
"This really does not look like the old family roadster from the 1980s when Taurus was the top-selling sedan in the United States," said Stephen Spivey, senior auto industry analyst with Frost & Sullivan. "You're looking at a car that's more of a luxury or muscle car."
The car has received positive reviews for its stylish interior featuring gadgets such as the Ford's relatively new SYNC system, a computer that gives drivers hands-free control of their mobile phone, MP3 player, traffic and weather reports.
"The look of a car gets you in the showroom, but you spend 99 percent of the time behind the wheel," said Joe Phillippi, principal in AutoTrends Consulting. "Fit, finish, refinement, how the controls feel—those are the things that make people happy with their car and generate the kind of word of mouth to get to neighbors and friends."
"Some people questioned whether you launch a new product in a down economy but we think this is a car that will get people excited about buying cars again," said Amy Marentic, Ford's Car Marketing Manager of Large Cars and Crossovers.
The new Taurus en route to showrooms is offered in SE, SEL, Limited and Super High Output (SHO) trim. The base price starts at $25,999 and the premium SHO runs between $37,000 to north of $40,000 for a fully loaded version. The SHO features a 3.5-liter V-6 that produces 263 horsepower, or if that's not enough power, there's a 365 twin turbocharger option.
A few other sharp optional features include a blind-spot alert, an adaptive cruise control system that applies the brakes when a collision is imminent, and a system that allows parents to kill the audio on the radio when a teen drives above 80 mph.
Those safety features, along with a package that includes heated and cooled massage seats -- and the overall luxury feel -- caught the attention of Esquire. "Looks good, goes fast," the magazine's editors explained in a surprise selection of the Taurus as car of the year. They continued, "Here we have an affordable American sedan that benchmarks not the Chevy Impala or Hyundai Sonata but the Audi A6 and BMW 535xi."
Original Taurus Was Introduced in 1986
Edmunds.com quibbled over some of the new Taurus' features, but concluded the car is a "very attractive choice for those searching for a large, family-friendly sedan."
Carconnection.com gushed over the vehicle's powerful engine, saying its bottom line was that "The 2010 Ford Taurus punches up Ford's reputation for quality and features."
Despite all the fanfare surrounding the Taurus, sedans have struggled to catch up to the high-profit pickups and sport utility vehicles over the past decade. And the SUV and truck market was where Ford had hoped to dominate. Sedans were virtually forgotten about.
But as gas prices soared and demand for cars with better gas mileage increased, Ford leadership moved to diversify the company's platform. Part of the effort centered on the company's desire to boost fuel efficiency across Ford's entire fleet. And the Taurus, Ford thinks, represents an opportunity to provide consumers with quality driving experience with strong fuel efficiency. The SHO version gets 28 miles per gallon on the highway, a respectable mark for a V-6 engine.
The original Ford Taurus, introduced in the 1986 model year, was an instant hit.
"The 1986 Taurus was the car that saved the company," Phillippi said. "It became a real hit because it was so different from everything else out there."
The car's aerodynamic design and the wrap-around dash with easily-identifiable controls won praise. The Taurus was the bestselling vehicle in the U.S. during the 1990s and the car's success can be seen today. There are 4 million Tauruses still on the road. Ford sold 7 million Tauruses over 20 years before the car was renamed the Five Hundred in 2005.
But, the new model is not the same car that, in its heyday, kept Ford afloat.
Compared to the original model, the new Taurus is more expensive and is expected to have a lower average volume segment. Nor is the new design groundbreaking in the same manner as the original model.
The new Taurus will probably meet Ford's sales goal of 50,000 units a year, Spivey said, but it probably won't reach the same success the car enjoyed at the height of its popularity in the late 1980s and early 1990s, selling 420,000 units a year.
At a base price of $25,999, the new Taurus may not be for budget-conscious consumers looking for a family vehicle. The near-luxury vehicle looks nice, experts say, and may attract higher-end buyers. According to experts, the new Taurus is an effort to move the Ford brand forward, not revolutionize it.
"Ford knows the customers they're trying to reach," said Craig Fitzgerald, auto analyst at Plante & Moran PLLC in Southfield, Mich. "The product introductions have been very solid over the last couple of years. They've thought this through carefully and this vehicle is likely to do what they intended it to do."
A reinvention of the model makes sense, given the strength of the Taurus brand.
"There are a couple of vehicles that really define what Ford is," Marentic said. "When people rattle off Ford vehicles they think of the F-150, the Mustang, the Model T and the Taurus. Getting these vehicles right and making sure that we have a credible product is absolutely key to the company."
The design and modeling, which took Ford two years, was a high priority for CEO Allan Mullaly. Ford announced the discontinuation of the Taurus in 2006, but later re-branded the moniker for its Five Hundred full-size sedan.
Mullaly wanted the car back in showrooms, and ordered engineers and designers to come up with something that could stand out as the flagship of the fleet.
Now as car buyers begin to make their way back to dealer lots, Ford waits to see if the new Taurus can capture past glory.
"Ford has gained more market share coming through this challenging restructuring than the other two domestic automakers," Spivey said. "They have a lot of goodwill in the minds of consumers for planning better and avoiding some of the problems that plague other car companies."
The automaker has momentum since it was the only company out of Detroit's Big Three that did not declare bankruptcy.
"Ford doesn't need a car that saves the company," Fitzgerald said of the new Taurus. "This is going to be a vehicle that will be well-received by the marketplace, a new vehicle that will polish the apple a little more. It's not a breakthrough, just a continuation of a well thought out, well-executed vehicle."