Curbside Classic: 2006 Ford Taurus – Nobody’s Hero

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(first posted 2/16/2013)     Like that of the Beatles, the story of the Ford Taurus has been told so many times that pretty much everyone knows about it on some intrinsic level. Your version may differ from mine, but fundamentally it goes like this: The 1986 sedan was revolutionary and rocked the American auto market. Then, some time during the Clinton administration, Ford went a little crazy in their design and blew it . After the turn of the century, the car was more or less a joke until it was killed off in 2006. So what else is there left to say?

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As a matter of fact, quite a bit. Mary Walton’s Car briefly discusses the 2000 redesign, which was already being planned even as the first 1996 model-year Taurii were arriving at dealerships. Nothing earth-shattering to report; the team responsible for the Taurus of the 21st century planned for a heavy refresh using lots of carryover parts as well as keeping the same two V6 engines. Was it a realization that the DN101 platform had staying power? Or had Ford really given up on the mid-size market that early? In either case, I’m guessing the suits in Dearborn were hedging their bets on both.

There is one obvious thing that the team realized: The styling had to be changed. The bull retained its roundness, but it became more subdued. Jack Telnack’s stance against peanut-shaped headlamps went by the wayside, and the new beak was all the better for it. The new design was much smoother and more cohesive than its predecessor.

Since the D186 platform was basically a reworked DN101 chassis, Ford threw some of its money toward developing features that would be unique to the mid-size market, most notably power-adjustable pedals, a world-exclusive at the time. Features like multi-stage airbags and an inner trunk release were also standard on the bull for model year 2000.

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Another feature carried over from the previous generation was the keyless entry strip. It’s a nice little touch (even though we’ve never used it). Still, I’m sure it’s appreciated by folks who like to leave stuff in their cars when they go for a hike or to the gym. Oddly enough, its something that competitors haven’t replicated in their vehicles to this day.

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Inside, the interior retained the combined audio/climate center stack (or “Instrument Control Panel”) pioneered by the third-gen model. It’s a pain in the ass for people who want to upgrade the audio, but you can’t really argue with its layout. All the buttons are placed logically, with those most used set closest to the driver. Those buttons are also large enough to press without diverting your eyes from the road. Cruise control buttons located on the steering wheel instead of a stalk behind it make this a very easy vehicle to get used to. And just to answer your question, that steering wheel cover is just as awful as it looks.

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Another intuitive interior design feature is the window and door lock switches. Their tactile layout is useful without being alienating; they can be operated without explanation. The three releases you see pictured (trunk, hood, and emergency brake) work similarly.

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So, am I trying to sell you our CC subject? Absolutely not. Don’t get me wrong: The Taurus’s cost of ownership has been as satisfying as typing “Christina Hendricks” into a Google Image search; that is, you’ll never be disappointed.

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One can point out many faults that doomed the Taurus, but for this generation it was cost-cutting. Ford didn’t even feel like forking over the money for a blue oval on the alloy wheels! The 2004 refresh also brought a leather interior; it might have been comfortable, but the material was as authentic as a Twinkie.

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And the bean counters didn’t stop there. The key fob on the left is for my CC, the right one is for the bull. Although it once had pictures of what those buttons did, now you just have to know from memory or experimentation. I can say with confidence that we must have woken up the neighbors several times over the years by mistakenly pressing the panic button late at night, but I don’t think we’re entirely to blame.

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So where does all this leave us? In terms of styling, over ten years later the fourth generation has held up reasonably well. Its driving characteristics have done likewise, and it’s certainly more confidence-inspiring than the previous CC I wrote about. Nevertheless, it probably doesn’t compare well to its contemporary competition. Why do I say that? Because my research indicates that Ford deleted the rear sway bar after the 2003 model year–a big mistake, as its body roll is significantly more pronounced than that of my Sable. But both the engine and transmission are smoother, and at 153 hp and 185 ft/lbs of torque at 3,950 RPM, it’s a bit quicker than its four-cylinder competition.

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I like this picture because it looks like the guy upstairs is ushering the Taurus into that Driveway-in-the-Sky–and by late 2006, that essentially was the reality. Ford really took a bipolar approach to this car: There was an effort to keep it competitive, as evidenced by its unique features (I didn’t even mention the flip/fold center console!), but there were no real advancements after the 2000 model year. This car was definitely a sinking ship that was seven years in the making.

How can we justify what Ford did to the venerable Taurus name? Well, they had blown a couple of billion dollars on the disaster that was the Ford Contour/Mercury Mystique, and were most likely going through quite a bit of cash developing the Escape and Explorer. The Focus couldn’t have been cheap to develop either. There was also an impending 2003 F-150 redesign, and I’m guessing that the Ford Five Hundred and Freestyle were also being worked on in the early 2000s.

But the real Taurus killer was not the Camry or Accord, but the 2003 Mazda 6. This is all speculation, but when Ford saw the potential for making a new mid-size out of their corporate partner’s platform, they must have immediately closed the book on the D186. There are a few interesting parallels between the development of the Fusion and the fourth-generation Taurus, specifically the use of carryover engines. But the modern transmissions were class-competitive at the least, and it was an attractive vehicle with good driving dynamics. Enough time has passed to show us that it was the right move at the time.

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Still, I have to lament the loss of mid-size Taurus for several reasons. It was (I believe) the last mid-size Ford to offer a front bench seat. There was a wagon version, and all variants were built right here in America. To be fair, the current Focus is being built in Michigan; ironically, the Flat Rock, MI plant that built the Mazda 6 is now being retooled to produce the new Ford Fusion. So I guess it isn’t all bad, and it is nice to see Ford back in the mid-size game. Still, I’ll always think of the fourth-generation Taurus as a tragedy of sorts, especially in light of the success of previous generations. But at least the nameplate is still around, which is something you can’t say about the Sable–and that’s a fact.