(Originally posted 12/27/2017 as the finale for Taurus Week. Content updated to mark the last American Taurus rolling off the assembly line on Friday, March 1st) What is there left to say about the Taurus that hasn’t already been said? The 1986 model transformed the American auto industry; simultaneously ending the Brougham epoch and Malaise Era in one fell swoop. Fifteen years later it became the poster child for the incompetence of the American auto industry. And its demise in 2019 likely marks the beginning of the end for mainstream American full size sedans. Equal parts triumph and tragedy. But the Taurus legacy lives on for reasons both obvious and obscure.
Almost immediately after its introduction, the Taurus literally forced rival automakers back to the drawing board. Chrysler and General Motors may have beaten Ford to the market with front-wheel drive vehicles, but when the Taurus rolled into showrooms, those products were like CD players in the age of streaming audio. Chevy’s Celebrity went from selling 362,000 units in 1987 to 260,000 in 1988, clear evidence that the Taurus was shaking things up.
The Japanese automakers were similarly affected by Ford’s breakthrough mid-size, mainly because they didn’t have one. Both the Camry and Accord were considerably smaller when the Taurus came about. Everyone was playing catch-up.
Toyota caught up with the new sizing paradigm in 1991, releasing a Camry that offered a refined powertrain and unbeatable quality.
Honda’s fifth generation Accord also grew in size to better compete with the Taurus.
Chrysler oddly positioned itself both above and below the mid-size segment with its LH and cloud car programs.
General Motors famously delayed the GM-10 program once the Taurus debuted, but when they finally released a competitor to the Taurus, it was too big, too conservative with its styling, and too cheap with everything else. The 1997 Chevrolet Malibu, while right sized for the segment, also suffered from poor quality materials.
Nissan stumbled until 2002, when the Altima finally grew to modern proportions.
Even today, modern mid-size dimensions aren’t too far off from where they were 30 years ago; the sedans have grown a bit in height and width, but overall length has remained roughly the same.
But the Taurus did more than just set the sizing standard. It revolutionized mainstream car interiors as well.
Ford effectively ended the era of thoughtless cabins in non-luxury vehicles. Borrowing its climate control system from Saab, Ford introduced the masses to the “three dial” system that is still prevalent in cars without digital climate control.
Here is the setup on a 2013 Ford Focus SE.
The Taurus also featured high quality door panels that didn’t simply looked tacked on.
Dashboards now also melted naturally into the rest of the car, and the center stack was angled toward the driver in order to make the controls easier to reach.
Here is the same design concept in a Honda HR-V.
Other thoughtful changes extended to the engine bay, where Ford engineers clearly labeled the various fluid reservoirs and dipsticks for ease of use.
It’s easy to understand why so many people dismiss the Taurus as revolutionary, over three decades after its debut. Ford didn’t invent many of these thoughtful touches and all of these features quickly became standard practice on almost every mass produced vehicle up to the present day. But the Taurus set the precedent.
The Taurus also set the standard for modern vehicle introductions. Not only was the car revealed months ahead of its on sale date, it did so in spectacular fashion at MGM Studios.
Chrysler notably borrowed this idea when introducing the Jeep Grand Cherokee, literally crashing the vehicle through a massive pane of glass.
At Ford, the success of the Taurus had little effect, at least initially. The F-150 and Mustang received the same kind of attention that the Taurus got during its initial development, but the Team Taurus approach wasn’t replicated for other cars in the lineup. Only a few individuals stayed on for the Taurus redesign, and by 1991, CEO’s Phillip Caldwell and Donald Peterson had retired. Lewis Veraldi, widely considered the “father” of the Taurus, retired in 1989 and died one year later.
The 1990’s were a bi-polar period for the company; trucks and utility vehicles propelled the company to new heights while the dual launches of the Contour and redesigned Taurus were massive flops. Due to Nasser’s tumultuous reign creating a new era of corporate dysfunction in Dearborn and beyond, the initial success of the Focus quickly dissipated, while the fourth generation Taurus stemmed the bleeding of sales to other brands, albeit temporarily.
The Fusion, effectively the successor to the Taurus, arrived in 2005 and brought back several elements that made the Taurus a player in the mid-size segment.
2003 Cadillac CTS
The 2006 Fusion received contemporary styling which emulated designs from luxury manufacturers and paired it with the riding and handling characteristics of European sedans. Ford needed Mazda DNA for this to happen, but spiritually it carried much of the Taurus ethos. Unfortunately the first generation Fusion suffered from anemic powertrains and a spartan interior.
The legacy of the Taurus wasn’t directly felt until the Mullaly era. Alan was a devout member of the Church of Taurii, having studied its success story before coming to Dearborn. Following the vision set forth by Taurus patriarch Lew Veraldi and head designer Jack Telnack, Mulally successfully integrated the Team Taurus mantra into the entire corporate structure. This meant a company more effectively tackling product development and utilizing global assets without petty factionalism.
The result was cars like the 2013 Ford Fusion, by far the closest spiritual successor to the original Taurus. Not only does the car employ design trends popularized by successful European nameplates, it offers driving dynamics in line with them as well. Ford introduced us to complex design with the third generation Taurus in 1996, but this time the Fusion introduced a bold new design without going too far.
To paraphrase Harvey Dent, the Taurus lived long enough to see itself become the villain; it certainly didn’t die the hero; Mulally’s insistence that the Taurus name be slapped on something else contributed to a Taurus being sold continuously in one form or another from 1985 to 2019.
As for the fifth generation, it was essentially just a place holder until the 2010 model.
The sixth generation embodied the best and worst of the Taurus legacy. It’s notable for a comfy highway ride and a spacious trunk, but the team responsible for its creation sacrificed functionality for style. The full-size sedan with a mid-size interior. Like the Taurus models before it, the sixth generation also represents a good value on the used car market.
The seventh generation Taurus was revealed at the 2015 Shanghai Auto Show, riding on a stretched version of the platform that also underpins the Fusion. Americans never got it. With low gas prices and the shift towards crossovers, selling the Taurus as a China-only model makes sense.
Unlike the Taurus, the Mercury Sable did actually die, although it was briefly resurrected alongside the fifth generation Ford. Aside from having unique body panels in its first generation, the Sable barely distinguished itself from its fraternal twin. That’s not to say the Sable was completely insignificant; if you combine its sales with that of the Taurus, the third generation fielded far more competitive numbers relative to the Accord and Camry. But that argument deserves its own story.
Over thirty years later, the legacy of the Taurus lives on in pretty much every mass market car available today. For the mid-size segment, it had a worthy successor in the Fusion. It forced the competition to step up their game, and set the standards by which we continue to judge mainstream sedans. When you hear the word appliance being lobbed at cars like the Camry, its because the Taurus proved things could be different.