Vintage Review: 1989 Ford Taurus SHO – American Showstopper

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The first generation Taurus was a daring move by Ford, and they were deservedly successful with a great looking, great driving, comfortable, practical and well-priced design. The Taurus earned plenty of critical acclaim with its 1986 introduction, and quickly became a best seller from coast to coast. Ford could have easily rested on their laurels with an already excellent car. But instead they decided to apply a classic U.S. high performance strategy by putting a powerful engine in a mid size family car, and thus the Taurus SHO was born. This time, however, the platform was front wheel drive and the high output engine came with an exotic Asian twist. Aimed directly at enthusiasts’ hearts, it was a modern day muscle machine, and the period buff books weren’t shy about singing its praises.

Car and Driver featured the new SHO on the cover of their December 1988 issue, and inside gave an extensive preview test. The article trumpeted the Taurus SHO’s impressive performance as well as its aggressive price point: it was the fastest four-door sedan on the market for less than $50,000 (which would equal $95,700 today).

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In fact, the Taurus SHO, with its sophisticated Yahama designed and built powertrain, would retail for around $20,500 or $39,327 adjusted. That was a fantastic price for such sizzling performance.

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Yahama worked wonders on the basic Taurus 3.0L V6 to create the “Shogun” engine that powered the SHO. For the time, it featured exotic hardware including dual overhead cams for each cylinder bank, 4-valves-per cylinder and a sophisticated intake manifold. With 220hp and 200 lbs-feet of torque, the Shogun was a far cry from the 140hp/160 lbs-feet of the Taurus 3.0L it was based on.

Channeling that power through the front wheels was one of the most challenging aspects of developing the Taurus SHO. Ford did an excellent job trying to minimize the adverse effects of FWD on the handling characteristics, but dynamically the car still suffered in comparison with RWD platforms, and there was no getting around torque steer on take off and understeer at the limit.

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One criticism of the SHO that Car and Driver noted was regarding its lack of styling differentiation from other Taurus models. Only a truly keen observer would even notice the SHO was any different than a Taurus LX from the outside—hardly the best way to announce that you had America’s best super sedan.

Looking at the test results, it’s striking to see how far performance has evolved since the late 1980s. The exotic Taurus SHO, one of the fastest sedans in the world at that time, did zero-to-60 in 6.7 seconds, which is comparable to what a plain-Jane 2015 Taurus with the EcoBoost 4-cylinder delivers today. Nor did the Ford have airbags or ABS, which would soon be expected equipment.

Road & Track featured a preview of the Taurus SHO in their October 1988 issue, and included the Acura Legend sedan in the write-up as well. While they were two very different cars, they were sized and priced about the same and both were very up-to-date designs targeting affluent, sedan-seeking Baby Boomers.

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While the SHO was the performance champ, the Acura was praised for its smoothness and refinement. The choice boiled down to whether the buyer wanted a powerful, almost brutish sports sedan or a responsive luxury car with a light touch. One advantage the Acura had, at least for fans of one pedal driving, was the availability of an automatic. Even for performance car fans, the Taurus SHO being a manual only likely limited its sales appeal, given the predominance of shiftless American drivers.

Another comparison test with the SHO could be found in the January 1989 issue of Automobile Magazine, where Ford’s super sedan was pitted against the new BMW 535i. Was the top Taurus America’s answer to the 5-Series BMW?

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One enormous advantage the Ford had was price. The as-tested Taurus SHO stickered for $19,870 ($38,031 adjusted) while the BMW checked in at a whopping $46,085 ($88,207 adjusted), and that was for a regular 535i (the M5 would have been $54,500 or $104,313 adjusted). These were the last days before the Japanese dramatically disrupted the German’s nosebleed-level pricing strategies…

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Thankfully the SHO did away with the fake wood grain accents found in other Taurus models, replacing it with metallic trim. Lear Siegler sport seats were also standard SHO fare, though Automobile’s editors found them lacking in thigh support.

The interior ambiance of the 535i was highly praised, along with its slick shifter and super smooth inline six. While the Ford was given the nod for having an edge in handling and performance, the BMW was given high accolades for the refinement and integration of total package. The holistic finesse of the BMW was tough to beat (and still is today—just ask Cadillac).

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Still, Automobile’s editors had tremendous praise for the SHO, and were careful to note that Ford’s mission—creating a value-priced American super sedan—was very different than BMW’s goal of beating Mercedes as the builder of the world’s best expensive luxury sport sedans.

So what did car buyers think of the Taurus SHO? For the 1989 model year, Ford sold 16,561 SHOs, about 4% of total Taurus output. For 1990, SHO sales were down to 8,609 units, representing a mere 3% of all Taurus models sold. Sales ticked back up slightly for 1991, the last year of the first generation SHO, when 9,136 found homes (still 3% of total Taurus output). Still, while the total sales volume wasn’t huge, these were respectable numbers for a unique, high performance variant of a family sedan. Ford also took feedback to heart, as the 1992 Taurus refresh brought more unique exterior styling elements to better differentiate the SHO from its lesser stablemates, and an automatic transmission arrived for 1993.

Without a doubt, the Taurus has to be considered one of the milestone cars of the 1980s, and the SHO was its brazen flagship. Even if the car was a bit rough around the edges, the SHO was a bold engineering play coming from a confident company. The resulting highly unique car could certainly hold its own against some pretty impressive competition, and it rightfully earns a place in the car enthusiast’s Hall of Fame.