Curbside Classic: 1996-98 Ford Taurus Ghia – The Hometown Falcon Knocks Out The Ovoid Contender

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What you are looking at here is the object of my teenage lust. While some teenage boys had posters of Lamborghinis and Ferraris in their rooms, I really wanted to own the short-lived Australian market version of the controversial 1996 Ford Taurus. In a market that hadn’t seen much in the way of American metal in decades, let alone anything this daringly styled, the Taurus was almost exotic. Underneath that bold sheetmetal, though, lay a fairly modern, competent yet unexciting family sedan. Despite its competitiveness, the odds were always going to be stacked against this bull in the Aussie market.

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1994-96 Ford EF Falcon

 

We all know the Australian Falcon is ascending to the great junkyard in the sky come 2016, but much like the manual transmission and the V8 engine, the Falcon’s impending death has been speculated upon for decades. During the mid-1990s, the Falcon came very close to being replaced by the third-generation Taurus. But it was the successful 1994 EF revamp of the 1989-vintage Falcon, boasting up-to-date styling and a refined version of the venerable 4.0 six, which secured a $AUD750 million commitment to the 1998 AU Falcon. It was this replacement that ended up being one of the Australian market’s most polarizing cars of the past few decades, but that is a story for another day.

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1991-96 Ford Telstar TX5 Ghia

 

Despite the commitment to future Falcons, Ford decided to help amortize the cost of developing the fresh new Taurus by launching it in the Australian market, as well as New Zealand and Japan. This lead to the somewhat confusing situation of Ford dealers selling two similarly-sized, priced and equipped sedans in the same space. Ford claimed the Taurus Ghia was a replacement for the Telstar Ghia, a rebadged Mazda 626 that, thanks to a rising Yen, was priced uncomfortably high.

The most prestigious Falcon on the normal-length wheelbase, the Fairmont Ghia, retailed in 1996 for around $AUD46,000. The top-end Telstar hatch, with a 2.5 V6 and four-wheel-steering, retailed for a whopping $50,000; the entire Telstar range would be axed in 1996 to make way for the European Mondeo. This proved to be a wise move, as the subsequent 626 would be an example of mid-1990s Japanese conservatism and cost-cutting.

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The Taurus was pitched not as an in-house rival to the Fairmont, but rather  its quarry was the dull Nissan Maxima (a rebadged Infiniti I30/Nissan Cefiro), the Toyota Vienta (luxed-up Camry) and Mitsubishi Verada (Diamante). In specification, it was quite similar, with front-wheel-drive and a MacPherson strut suspension.

The transverse, DOHC Duratec 24v V6 was the only engine choice, mated to a four-speed automatic. Unlike its Aussie showroom buddy, there was no V8 to be found here. Detail changes were made from the American market Taurus, including the use of Mercury Sable headlights and new front turn signals to meet strict Australian Design Rules.

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The Taurus was slightly longer overall than the Falcon (198 in vs 189 in), but had a shorter wheelbase (108.4 vs 110) and weighed 99lbs less than a similarly equipped Fairmont Ghia. Unlike many front-wheel-drive pretenders to the Falcon/Commodore throne, the Taurus was comfortably wide; a negligible 0.11 inches split the two.

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Ford EF Fairmont Ghia (top) and Ford Taurus Ghia (bottom)

 

Hopes of considerably better packaging owing to the front-wheel-drive layout, though, were dashed by the Taurus’ swoopy roofline. Inside, however, the Taurus showed more flair. The continuation of the oval theme wasn’t to everyone’s tastes, but the interior had more panache than the conservative Falcon and was solidly assembled with good quality materials. The Falcon had it soundly beat in trunk space, though.

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1996-98 Ford EL Fairmont

 

Much like the Probe debacle in the US that lead to the continuation of the old Fox Mustang, there was a mighty brouhaha over Ford daring to shift to a front-wheel-drive Falcon. Once the RWD Falcon’s position was firmly ensconced in the Aussie lineup, though, the Taurus was assessed on its own merits. Critics were fair in their verdicts on this curious American entrant.

Motor magazine’s first impressions were of a sedan with ride, steering and handling “close to class-leading for a large front-drive sedan”. They were especially impressed with the communicative steering and a well-damped ride, but disappointed by a deficiency in torque. The venerable SOHC 4.0 inline six in the Falcon may have had only slightly more horsepower (207), but it boasted a stout 263 ft-lbs of torque at 3000rpm; the Taurus had 200 ft-lbs at a much higher 4500rpm. The result was much less low-end grunt than the Falcon.

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Wheels magazine compared the Fairmont Ghia and Taurus Ghia in 1996 and was disappointed that the Taurus wasn’t easily the better car considering the investment and talent involved in its development. The much older Falcon, riding on an eight-year-old platform with an even older engine and a solid rear axle, proved to be the sedan better-suited to Australia, right down to its better radio reception and stronger headlights. The Taurus gulped less fuel, shifted smoother and cornered flatter, but nothing stood out as being remarkably better.

Ford Taurus Ghia

The Taurus came extremely well-equipped, with climate control, a six-speaker stereo, alloy wheels, anti-lock brakes, remote central locking and dual airbags. An optional luxury pack added leather trim and a six-disc CD changer. But the Taurus Ghia retailed between $AUD43-46,000, right in the same price range as the Fairmont/Fairmont Ghia six.

Dealers had to discount to shift the bulls, and by the third and final year on the market, Ford slashed prices by more than $5000. Suffice it to say, Ford’s – ahem – bullish targets of 5,000 units annually were not reached. Considering the in-showroom competition and the fact that 1995 saw only 3,400 Veradas and 2,400 Maximas sold, it was always going to be an unrealistic target.

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1998-2000 Ford AU Falcon

 

Unlike other RHD markets, Ford Australia never received the striking Taurus wagon. Although much more attractive than the workmanlike, leaf-sprung Falcon wagon, it probably wouldn’t have made a huge impact on sales, nor would a RHD SHO or lesser models. The fun-to-drive Mondeo couldn’t even escape the sales doldrums during the 1990s.

These were the golden years for the Falcon in terms of sales, until Holden’s VT Commodore arrived in 1997. The 1998 AU Falcon was a misguided re-attempt at bold and curvaceous styling on a large sedan, and was a significant flop. Not even the launch of the handsome and thoroughly restyled 2002 BA Falcon could arrest an overall sales slide for the Falcon.

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“Taurus” in Australia became synonymous with failure, like an assassin sent to commit regicide and ending up in the stocks. Rumours would persist for years after that the Taurus would come back to usurp King Falcon, but these would prove to be false. The King may be dying now, but the Taurus isn’t coming to ascend to the throne. Ford Australia’s future flagship sedan will be the new Mondeo/Fusion.

Meanwhile, if you want a used family sedan in Australia that is reliable, well-equipped and dirt-cheap, the bulls tend to hover around the $3k mark. You’ll be part of an exclusive group of people who took a chance and tried something a little different. As for myself? I really liked the Taurus, but I bought a Falcon.

 

Related Reading:

Curbside Classic: 1986 Ford Taurus/Mercury Sable

Curbside Classic: 1996-99 Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable

Curbside Classic: 2006 Ford Taurus