Curbside Classic: 1996-99 Ford Taurus Wagon – Making Over A Family Friend

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After a very safe mid-cycle enhancement of the first Taurus in 1992, Dick Landgraff and his team were seeking to recreate the excitement the inaugural Taurus’s design generated for the new 1996 Taurus. Of course, we know how many reacted to Doug Gaffka’s design. The challenging design, coupled with higher list prices, meant the Taurus would quickly lose its sales leadership. Still, the Taurus’s design proved to be somewhat ahead of its time, with its sculpted sides and, on the sedan, a short rear deck. The wagon, though, was an interesting combination of an almost futuristic exterior on a body style that was fast falling out of favor with the buying public.

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The writing had been on the wall for station wagons as early as the 1980s. The Mopar minivans had blazed a new trail, offering van practicality in a convenient, garageable size. Rival automakers rushed to release rivals, with Ford offering the truck-derived Aerostar, a modest commercial success. Ford made hay when the market started clamouring for sport-utility vehicles, by launching the enormously successful 1990 Explorer. SUVs became popular with families, and further marginalized station wagon market share.

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Quite quickly, the number of station wagons on sale in North America started dwindling. Wagon market share had toppled from a high of 15% in the early 1960s to just 5% by the 1990s. Long-roof versions of the best-selling Toyota Camry and Honda Accord died after 1996, the same year Mitsubishi’s Diamante and GM’s Caprice and Roadmaster wagons shuffled off this mortal coil. The GM-10 mid-sizers, ostensibly replacements for the aged A-Bodies, never received wagon variants.

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The fleet-fodder Buick Century and Oldsmobile Ciera that carried the torch for the 1982-vintage A platform were gone by 1996, and their replacements lacked a wagon variant. These followed the death of the Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant wagons and Nissan Maxima wagon (1988), and Ford LTD Country Squire and Mercury Colony Park (1990). Ford seemed to stay true to its old Wagonmaster advertising; by the ’96 Taurus and Sable’s second year on the market, they were the only mainstream mid-size wagons remaining. Ford’s Escort wagon also held down the fort in the compact wagon segment, which had also experienced a similarly large exodus.

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Although the Sable sedan received a considerably different rear end treatment from the Taurus, both Taurus and Sable wagons were visually identical from the firewall back. The new mid-sizers employed “complex sculpture” design language, characterized by contours and ripples. Of course, the Ford oval inspired the heavy use of ovals, from the two ovoid front bumper openings to the grille, headlights and, on the Taurus sedan and the wagons, even the rear window. Ford was determined to wrest design leadership from Chrysler, whose LH sedans had created so much buzz in 1993.

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The wagons were originally intended to mate the new front end to the outgoing, boxier wagon rear.  CEO Alexander Trotman had taken one look at a clay design of this lazy wagon design and rejected it outright; the 1986 wagon was a slick design in its day, but time had moved on. The wagon would be an all-new design, just like the sedans. The wagon would also be able to seat up to eight people, if optioned with first- and third- row benches.

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Both Taurus and Sable featured the same interior except for different colour and trim selections; the much ballyhooed integrated control panel, grouping everything onto a single, ergonomic, ovoid pod, was the centrepiece of an intriguing new interior. Interior colours included a greyish purple, green, blue and saddle/grey; Ford had attempted to use more interesting fabric selections, although reaction was mixed. Greater attention had been paid to quality, though: Landgraff’s mission had been to “Beat Camry”.

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Indeed, Landgraff had driven the ’92 Camry extensively and come away extremely impressed by its quality, refinement and finish. When the ’96 Taurus first entered development, the key target was the Honda Accord, which had rocketed up the sales charts and overtaken the Taurus as best-selling car in America for 1991 by a margin of 100,000 units.

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The Accord’s success had Ford executives bristling: not only had it outsold the Taurus, it had a median buyer age a decade younger, a median buyer income almost $10k higher, greater buyer loyalty and a lower fleet sales percentage. America’s sweetheart, the Taurus, was getting squeezed by two immensely popular Japanese sedans. Somehow, the Accord was selling gangbusters without even offering a V6, and the bulk of its sales were sedans: an Accord wagon wouldn’t even appear until 1990. But it was the thoroughly American-sized and high-quality Camry that had the DN101 team shifting targets.

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The DN101 team may have spent a lot of time deconstructing the Accord and Camry, but they looked at precious little else. Automotive juggernaut GM’s mid-size offerings were in a sales tailspin, and although the Chevrolet Lumina would beat the new Taurus/Sable to market by a year, it was a non-entity selling mostly on price and brand loyalty.

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The interior and exterior changes may have been revolutionary, but some parts remained, namely the floorpan and the base powertrain. The venerable Vulcan 3.0 saw base model duty; it pumped out 145 horsepower. The new, modular Duratec 3.0 V6, with an impressive 200 horsepower, was the optional engine, replacing the old Essex 3.8.

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As Mary Walton explains in her excellent book “Car”, Landgraff and his team’s analysis of the slick ’92 Camry led to an additional $790 variable cost per vehicle. That figure encompassed higher quality fabrics and stronger door hinges, among other thoughtful changes. Landgraff believed the Taurus would sell with fewer incentives, despite the Taurus’ quite recent history of heavy incentives, as well as surveys of import owners who argued the Taurus should have a lower list price than the Camry for them to even consider it.

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The station wagon debuted a month after the sedan, at the Chicago Auto Show of 1995; the SHO would follow in April’s New York show. Cars started to appear on dealer lots by August.

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Critical reception was positive. The Taurus and Sable were praised for their competent dynamics – particularly their smooth ride, balanced handling and stability–as well as their quality feel and yes, even their styling. Michelle Krebs of the New York Times said, “the Taurus’s smooth, flowing lines make everything else look staid and boxy.” The Detroit Free Press compared the Taurus to the Camry and Lumina and called the Ford the “winner by a knockout.”

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The Taurus range featured two trim levels for both body styles: GL and LX, the latter featuring standard bucket seats. The Sable came in GS and LS trims. Prices started at $19,150 for the Taurus GL sedan and $19,545 for the Sable GS sedan, with wagons carrying a premium of approximately $1000. This represented a not-insignificant $500 increase in list price, not to mention the outgoing Taurus’s incentives had recently increased from $1000 to $2000. Ford wanted to push the Taurus heavily on retail buyers, and change the product mix to 40% LX (from $25%) and 24% station wagon (from 12%).

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What Ford found, though, was that the Taurus/Sable were sales disappointments. Nineteen ninety-six would be the last year of Taurus’ sales dominance: never again would it be America’s best-selling car. Automotive journalists blamed this change in fortune mostly on higher list prices. Perhaps an American mid-sizer couldn’t sell at the same price level as a Japanese one. After all, the disappointing Lumina was selling quite briskly and it cost around $2500 less than a Taurus. What was particularly upsetting for the development team was that retail buyers only accounted for 49% of 1996 Taurus sales. Their strikingly styled, high-quality family car didn’t even seem to be luring in the younger, more affluent families they’d hoped to attract, despite a prominent advertising campaign.

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Ford, concerned about profits, took to cost-cutting. Cheaper door hinges, plastic mouldings, fewer screw caps, vinyl inserts on leather seats… Bit by bit, Ford tried to bring down the cost of their mid-sizer. Rebates were put on the hood. In April 1996, Ford even launched a price-leader G, around $600 cheaper than the previous base GL; Mercury also briefly received a Sable G. It wasn’t enough to keep Taurus from slipping to number three. The Camry and Accord had bested it. Not even the now-unique availability of a wagon could spare it the bronze.

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Work had already started on a heavily revised Taurus/Sable duo for 2000, but there would be minor changes before then. The Taurus would receive a redesigned, more conventional front bumper, as well as a new grille for 1998; amber rear turn signals were also changed to red. More cost-cutting was evident in 1999, with the deletion of various interior lamps.

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For 2000, Taurus and Sable sedans would receive new sheetmetal but for carryover doors; this included a higher, more conventional trunk. Wagon sheetmetal, however, would remain the same from the firewall back. Unlike the clumsy clay Alex Trotman had rejected several years ago, this time using carryover wagon sheetmetal wouldn’t be unfortunate looking.

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The interior would retain the Integrated Control Panel, but it was now squared off and no longer angled towards the driver. Overall, the cars were much more conservative looking, although their “complex sculpture” doors would remain a distinctive feature. Something gone from the Taurus and Sable, though, were rear disc brakes on the sedans.

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The $3 billion Taurus and Sable had been slashed at by executives desperate to bring costs down and to stop the bleeding of profits and sales. No meaningful improvements were made to the Taurus after 2000; instead, it would be left to wither on the vine.

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The final, sad note: wagons and the Duratec V6 would be axed after 2005, leaving just lowly Vulcan-powered sedans with rear drum brakes for 2006. After that, the Taurus and Sable were dead. Their nameplates may have been resurrected a few years later by an intrepid new CEO, Alan Mulally, who was bemused they would be left to die so foolishly, but there would never be a conventional Taurus station wagon again. For that matter, there would never be another conventional, mid-size, mainstream, American station wagon again.