When Ford unveiled the 2010 Taurus at this year's Detroit Auto Show, I asked J Mays, the company's head of design, if he was looking for a solid double with the car, or swinging for the fences. No surprise, he said he said he was hoping for a home run.
Well, as far as the car is concerned, he got one, with a couple of runners on base.
The new Taurus is a nearly complete overhaul of the outgoing model, a sad also-ran in the pennant race for the past 5 years. Competent to a fault, the design of that full-size sedan - originally known as the Five Hundred - was as dull as a 13-run blowout after the beer stands close, and a far cry from the glory days of the one-time best-selling car in America. This time around, the Taurus looks more like a franchise player, one that's violated Major League Baseball's steroid policy and had a very fortunate run-in with an axe-wielding lumberjack.
Swept back from the front and canted forward in the rear, from any angle the body has the classic appearance of moving fast while standing still. A chopped top adds some menace, while deeply-chiseled character lines keep it from becoming a featureless ovoid like Tauruses past.
Ford is trying hard to tap into that go go 1980's spirit in the push for the latest Taurus, but it doesn't really share many visual elements with any of the previous editions. The only thing that comes close are the slim headlights which vaguely recall the ones on the second generation mid-size Taurus of 1992. Flared fenders and power dome hood give the 2010 model a lot more visual muscle than that one ever had.
To appreciate the attention to detail Mays' team put into the exterior of the Taurus, just trace one of the raised lines that run along the car's shoulders, cut through the headlights, and continue under them to form the top of the bumper. Cost-cutting was clearly not a priority.
The interior keeps with the sporty theme, taking its major cues from the Ford Mustang. The split-dashboard motif, complete with cro-magnon brows, carries over from the 'Stang, but is angled away from the driver at steep 38 degrees. It looks great, but makes for a long reach to some of the buttons near the top of the center stack, as well as the optional touch-screen navigation system.
Material quality throughout belies a starting price of $25,995. It took 300 miles of driving for me to notice that, aside from the optional upholstery, the only leather in the cockpit is on the armrest. The only misstep is the hard plastic that’s used on the sides of the center console.
Mechanically, the big news is the resurrection of the top of the line Super High Output (SHO) model, and the direct-injected, twin-turbocharged EcoBoost engine that makes it so super. Ford is banking heavily on this technology to provide the power that Americans crave, while delivering the fuel economy needed to keep the folks in Washington, DC happy, just in case the time comes that it needs to get one of those fancy bailouts.
With 365 horsepower, the 3.5 liter V6 is plenty potent, and the fuel economy rating of 17 mpg city and 25 mpg highway is strong in the world of 4,300-pound, all-wheel-drive, full-size sedans, of which there are few. The highway mileage figure is even better than the 315 hp Mustang can manage. The front-wheel-drive Taurus models, fitted with normally aspirated 263 hp V6 engines, get an even more respectable 18 city/28 highway.
With this in mind I can't say I was too impressed with my personal average of 18 mpg in the SHO, especially since most of those miles were of the highway variety. In a front-wheel drive Limited model on a similar route I managed 22 mpg. It's a good thing the SHO has all that power to make the pain at the pump go away.
Toe into it and the rush is immediate, with no turbo lag, just serious muscle. But the Taurus is so refined that the engine and exhaust barely make a whimper in the cabin, and what does come through sounds like anything but a V8. Under 2000 rpm, there's a bit of a burble, but once you let the bulls out of the corral, the EcoBoost is all business rather than raucous.
Since the $37,995 SHO is effectively a front-wheel drive car that keeps the rear tires in reserve until their assistance is needed, there is a good dose of torque steer whenever you floor the gas pedal, but it goes away quickly as the excess power is directed aft. Sadly, the all-wheel drive grip is so good that smoky SHO-boating tire burnouts are nearly impossible, even with the stability and traction control systems turned off.
As speed rises, and the steering lightens up, the SHO moves along with effortless speed. There's some roll through the curves, but not as much as you'd expect in a car that is as heavy as some SUVs, and its well damped, so there is no unsettling mid-corner rebound. Compared to the Limited, which offers a pleasant, but pedestrian ride, the SHO is an Autobahnstormer.
The long haul is where this Taurus shines. Even with the tighter suspension, 20-inch wheels, summer performance tires, and lower rear axle ratio that come with the $995 performance package my test car was fitted with, the SHO coddles and comforts on the highway. The power puts passing on demand, and the heated and cooled leather seats with "Miko Suede" inserts made from recycled plastic (remember: ECOBoost) are almost too soft and comfy for a car trying to be a sports sedan. That said, if you accelerate hard enough, they suck you in like a beanbag chair and hold your backside in place just fine. While its there, you can enjoy a nice massage, because the buckets do that too.
Adaptive cruise control is available across the lineup, as is the usual assortment of high-end features including satellite radio with Ford's excellent Sync voice activation, backup camera, and a blind spot information system that alerts to traffic on your flanks with yellow lights in the side view mirrors. With a huge trunk sticking up high into your rear line of sight, the last two come in handy, but you’ll appreciate the cavernous cargo compartment just the same.
From a driver's standpoint, the Taurus, particularly the SHO, is without question the best sedan to ever carry the Ford badge. It's an amazing example of what a Detroit automaker is capable of when it puts its mind to it, or hires someone from the airplane business to smack it around a little until it does. It may not be a high-mileage hybrid, but not everyone is looking for that, and it compares well to the full-size competion. Unfortunately, that means it plays in a division where the cars are little too big and pricey to rocket to the top of the standings like the original did, but it's bottom of the ninth in Motown and Ford will take all the runs it can get.
2010 Taurus SHO
Base Price: $37,995
Type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, 5-passenger, 4-door sedan
Powerplant: 3.5L twin-turbocharged V6
Power: 365 hp, 350 lb-ft torque
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
MPG: 17 city/25 hwy
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Gary Gastelu is FoxNews.com's Automotive Editor.