By 1996 we had owned our “cursed” 1994 Honda Civic for just over two years. We were starting to get family from Ohio more interested in visiting Maryland as we lived relatively close to Washington, DC. Since we were new homeowners, we also had the extra space to host visitors when they arrived. We needed a car that was roomier than either the Civic or the Integra, and I was ready for something more “grown-up” and not as unlucky. I didn’t really succeed on the last requirement, as we’ll see.
I had been a big fan of the Ford Taurus throughout its lifetime to that point, starting with the first one I saw in our neighborhood (a neighbor got one as a company car just after they were introduced in 1986). I considered one when I was looking at the Thunderbird SC, in fact. The first-generation car was revolutionary, I thought, and made every other midsize sedan look outdated by comparison. By 1995, however, others had caught up with the Taurus and had sedans that were equally aerodynamic and attractive (the first cab-forward Chrysler LH sedans come to mind, but even the 1994-1999 Accords and 1992-1996 Camrys were in that category). I wasn’t the only one to notice that – Ford saw it too, and there have been many discussions/arguments since then about the wisdom of their reaction to return to the leadership position in the market.
Much has been written already about the “ovoid” 1996-1999 Taurus, including a rather entertaining book about the development of the car written not long after its release (I have a copy but the name escapes me at the moment). For our purposes here it is only necessary to note that the oval styling (both outside and inside) was quite controversial. The oval headlights, rear window, and radio/HVAC controls were fresh and new to some, ugly to others. The brochure made a big deal, as I recall, about the fold-out console/cupholders that doubled as a center seat for a sixth passenger when folded down.
Because it was different and didn’t really look like anything else on the road, I thought it was perfect for our next car – practical but not the same old beige sedan. As an owner of Hondas for a number of years, I was a bit nervous about committing my funds to something other than Honda. To try it out for longer than an around-the-block test drive I rented one for a trip and spent nearly a week with it. I was favorably impressed with how the car drove, how it was put together, and most of all how it looked. Thus, I decided on the car fairly quickly as a replacement for the Civic. I don’t recall what other cars, if any, I considered once I tried the Taurus.
Because the Taurus was fairly expensive for the time (and for our bank account that was still recovering from a home purchase and associated repairs on our older home), I had to pick the least expensive model without options, the GL. I wasn’t able to purchase the option package that included aluminum wheels, power seats, and a couple other amenities that most of the Taurus GLs came with at the time, but the car was reasonably well-equipped even in its base form. The issue of cost for the ’96 Taurus was challenging – these cars were a bit more expensive than the second-generation cars that preceded them, so Ford had to address this by introducing a decontented Taurus later on (the Taurus G – “we take off the ‘L’ and pass the savings on to you!”)
Based on my previous several experiences with purchasing new cars and feeling like I’d been taken for a ride, I decided to try a different approach and use a buying service to level the playing field a bit. Both our bank and AAA had such services that offered discounts and easy purchasing processes, but AAA also offered the ability to lease a vehicle. I don’t recall much about the process other than calling up the service through a phone number in the back of the AAA magazine and having to pick up the car at the AAA service’s location in an office park rather than a dealer. In this case, non-memorable means I didn’t have any problems with the service. Problems with the car, however – that will take up the remainder of this story.
The problems began even before I took delivery of the car. The vehicle they picked out of inventory for me based on my color and equipment choices had some pretty major paint damage to the rear bumper and the front brake rotors were warped pretty severely (even though the car was brand new). The AAA buying service was getting the car through the fleet department of a local dealer, and that dealer was very accommodating in having the rear bumper repainted and the front rotors turned not long after I leased the car. Once that was done, I bought the front end mask that was now a “must have” for me, and had a low-end CD changer with FM adapter installed, and I figured I was set. The unlucky Civic was gone and I should be home free for the next 36 months. Or so I thought…
First, the easy problems – the inexpensive CD changer I bought from a big-box electronics retailer was very unreliable, and I spent quite a bit of time in the trunk removing jammed CDs from the mechanism. (In this age where I have ten times as many albums on the smartphone in my hand that can be played wirelessly through Bluetooth, this seems quaint and antiquated!) Several complaints to the big-box retailer to return the low-end changer and a few extra dollars for a higher-quality Sony CD changer solved that problem. I had problems with the front end mask, too. The design of the car had a small oval grille between the headlights, and the matching oval in the mask had several elastic bands crossing the hole to keep the fabric from ballooning in the airstream when the car was moving. However, the bands were sewn on the back of the mask and rubbed against the paint leaving some pretty noticeable marks (somewhat defeating the purpose of the protective mask). I had to sew on some additional foam around the elastic bands to solve the problem.
The bigger problem was the transmission. This car had the GL’s 2-valve 3 liter V-6 with a four-speed automatic (column shifted, amusingly enough). The car I bought had an odd characteristic that I hadn’t experienced in the rental Taurus – the transmission would make a rather dramatic clunk as the car was slowed to a stop as if something was unlocking or locking as the car speed dropped to about 5-10 mph. Since the other rental Taurus I had driven didn’t exhibit this trait, I figured that there was something wrong with my car. Several trips to the dealer, including at least one long-duration trip where the transmission was removed from the vehicle, couldn’t eradicate the problem. The clunking was severe enough that it would shake the whole car and would do it at every stop sign, stop light, or stop in traffic (which around here meant it did the clunking A LOT). The transmission was generally ill-behaved: I had an experience where the transmission aggressively downshifted in my driveway at fairly low speeds and did so hard enough to chirp the tires as I pulled into the garage.
Needless to say, after several months, multiple trips to the dealer, and several weeks without a car made me increasingly frustrated. The dealer was very helpful, though, and assisted me with trying to get the problem resolved by working through Ford’s dispute settlement process. After the first (or maybe second) time the transmission was out of the car, I wrote a nicely-worded letter to the board asking for assistance in getting this problem resolved. Within a few weeks of that letter, I received a letter in return asking me to attend a meeting of the board and review the issues I had with the car. Of course, this meant taking more time away from work, but I felt it was worth it. I was a bit surprised, though, when I arrived at the board meeting and was asked to sit at the end of a very long conference table lined on both sides with dozens of people in suits and explain the problems I had with the car (I didn’t expect to have to make a presentation, so I was a bit unprepared). I stated my case, explained the problems and the well-documented steps taken to fix the problems, and thanked the board for their time. Then, I waited.
I didn’t have to wait long. A few weeks after that meeting I received a call from the dealership indicating that the board agreed to what they called a courtesy buy back of my Taurus, which I had only owned for about six months and driven only 7500 miles (with a lot of those just between home and the dealership). Success! I was overjoyed – I was able to go back to the dealer and pick out any other vehicle in their lot that was the same price (or close to the same price) as the Taurus. As the Taurus had been fairly expensive, that meant I had lots of options available (and it certainly wasn’t going to be a Taurus, that was for sure). I picked something that was pretty nice but, in hindsight, was probably not the most interesting car I could have chosen. That will be the subject of a COAL in a couple of weeks.
I still have all the repair documentation and dispute settlement board correspondence in my files somewhere. I ran across it recently while reorganizing after our latest move and was amused by all the work that went into getting that problem resolved. Things did turn out well, though – for the most part!