- The Washington Times - Friday, January 3, 2003

Despite reports of its imminent demise, the Ford Taurus continues to bull its way through the pack of competitors for the hearts and dollars of buyers of midsize sedans.

Once it was the king, a passenger-car sales-leader counterpart to Ford's F-Series pickup truck. But it was overtaken and overwhelmed by the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, leading observers to opine that Ford would send the Taurus to that great automotive stockyard in the sky.

That is not to be. Though the company hasn't done much to enhance the car lately, it has recommitted itself to the Taurus for the foreseeable future. To prop up the sales, Ford plans to sell whole bunches of Tauruses to fleet buyers such as rental car companies. In many respects, the 2003 Taurus is an ideal rental car. It has plenty of passenger space, a big trunk, decent performance, good fuel economy and a reasonable price.

It even offers a bit of pizzazz, if you order the SES version tested for this review. The big difference between the SES and its weaker siblings is more power, in the form of Ford's 3-liter V-6 engine, with four valves per cylinder. It spins out a solid 200 horsepower, which should be more than enough for any family-sedan buyer.

With that engine, a four-speed automatic transmission and customary equipment such as air conditioning, antilock brakes, remote locking, power windows and mirrors, cruise control, a power driver's seat, a stereo radio with CD player, a motorized sunroof and aluminum wheels, the Taurus SES started out at $22,930.

A few options, including traction control, adjustable pedals, side-impact air bags, heated outside mirrors, a six-disc CD changer and upgraded wheels brought the suggested delivered price up to $24,620, which is about what you'd pay for a comparable Camry or Accord.

But because the Taurus hasn't changed much lately and lacks a few of the improvements offered by the Japanese competitors navigation systems and five-speed automatic transmissions among them you're likely to find steeper discounts on the Taurus. That's doubtless part of the reason why it's still the third-best-selling midsize sedan.

The Taurus is a decent car, but it's not terribly exciting. Though it has modern styling, its character is more that of a good appliance than something to stir the driving soul. This is why it likely will fit well into rental fleets, where buyers are mainly looking for familiarity, along with room and comfort.

The interior of the Taurus SES is laid out simply, with ergonomically correct instruments and controls, though they differ slightly from those on competing cars. For example, the headlight switch is a twist affair on the lower left side of the dashboard, instead of on the turn-signal stalk as on many other cars.

A mildly jarring note came from the optional six-disc CD changer, which was located in the center console, wiping out most of the storage space. Most other cars have moved to in-dash CD changers.

Unquestionably, the most desirable innovation on the Taurus that is not available on the competition is the optional adjustable accelerator and brake pedal. A touch of a switch on the left side of the driver's seat moves both pedals back and forth. Combined with the power driver's seat, it should be possible for virtually any size human to find a comfortable driving position. At just $120, the adjustable pedals are a bargain.

Seats are comfortable in the front and back. On the test SES, they were covered in a bland and mousy-looking cloth, though it looked to be reasonably durable. The back seat is particularly commodious for two, with plenty of head and leg room. As on most cars, the center passenger in back does not fare as well.

Out back, there's a full 17 cubic feet of trunk space, with a cargo net to keep smaller items from rolling around. In everyday driving, the Taurus SES has responsive performance in fact, almost too responsive. The throttle tip-in a term that refers to how quickly the engine responds when you press the accelerator pedal is a bit too quick. Unless you show some restraint, you're likely to experience some jackrabbit starts, complete with squeals from the front tires.

The rapid throttle response could even pose problems to inexperienced drivers in tight parking situations when the last thing you want is to suddenly rocket backwards.

Once underway, the four-speed automatic shifts smoothly and the 200-horsepower engine provides an edge over lesser-endowed cars. Even under hard acceleration, there's little so-called torque steer, a term that refers to a tug on the steering wheel on powerful front-wheel-drive cars.

Handling, though not up to sport-sedan standards, is competent in most driving circumstances, and the Taurus delivers a smooth ride over all but the roughest surfaces.

The nice thing, of course, is that even if you don't end up owning a Taurus, you can always find out what it's like by renting one.

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