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Have you driven a Ford Taurus — lately?
There was a time when the answer was likely to be "yes." The midsize sedan was not only Ford Motor Co.’s No. 1 passenger car, but for much of the early 1990s, it was the nation’s best seller.
But all that changed with the launch of a second-generation Taurus in the fall of 1995. Whether it was the result of the radical new styling, the smaller trunk, the awkward rear doors or the higher price tag, Taurus started to slump, while the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry raced for the top of the sales charts.
Now, Ford is hoping to shore up the sagging sedan with a significant redesign for the 2000 model-year. Though the new Taurus shares the same platform as the outgoing model, it’s roomier and offers substantially more cargo space. The headlights are brighter. The interior is quieter. There’s more horsepower. And the styling is a little less radical.
The evolution continues
"It’s time to evolve, time to meet customer needs," acknowledged Dave Marinaro, Taurus chief program engineer, during a recent background session for the automotive media.
Size isn’t everything, of course. And in the aggressive promotional campaign it’s readying, Ford will focus on other aspects of the new Taurus. One of the critical goals for the new vehicle, Marinaro explained, was to "deliver a level of safety not yet delivered in our industry."
At the heart of the car is Ford’s new Advanced Restraint System. The system is designed to make airbags operate more effectively during an accident — and to reduce the chance of inadvertent airbag injuries.
"It allows the car to think about the crash situation and react accordingly," said Steve Kozak, director of Ford’s restraint systems department.
Sensors will detect whether occupants are wearing their seat belts.
2000 Ford Taurus interior
The Y2K Taurus offers smart airbags so children
and small adults can ride safely in the front passenger seat.
In minor accidents where front-seat occupants are buckled up, they will inflate more slowly than in a severe crash where front-seat occupants aren’t wearing their belts. In some collisions, one airbag might inflate more aggressively than the other.
"No longer are airbags a one-size-fits-all technology," Kozak said.
The customizable sedan
The Taurus also will be the first vehicle in the world equipped with power adjustable pedals, which can move 3 inches fore or aft. This will allow smaller drivers to sit farther away from the steering wheel, Marinaro noted, which should further reduce the chance of inadvertent injuries in the event of an accident that deploys the car’s airbags.
The Taurus also will be equipped with a new trunk-release system designed to make it easy for a child to avoid being unintentionally trapped in a locked trunk.
Ford’s emphasis on the safety features in the new Taurus doesn’t come as a surprise. For years, the auto industry argued that "safety doesn’t sell."
But today, "chances are, if you ask a customer what’s important, safety will be one of the first two things they mention," said Helen Petrauskas, Ford Motor Co.’s vice president of environmental and safety engineering.
Hitting hard on safety
Ford is by no means the only automaker emphasizing the safety features of its new vehicles. Safety was the centerpiece of a speech Ron Zarrella, president of General Motors Corp.’s North American operations, delivered at the Chicago Auto Show in February.
"Leadership in our business is more than just great-looking vehicles," Zarrella told a packed audience during the Chicago show’s press preview. "Leadership also has to do with vehicle safety."
GM intends to start equipping its vehicles with a new sensor that can detect whether a child is sitting in the front passenger seat. If so, it will disable the airbag. Ford officials said they’re working on a similar "smart" system, but didn’t believe their version would be ready for use in time for the 2000 Taurus launch.
The new Taurus will receive its full, formal introduction at the New York International Auto Show. Prior to the briefing, Ford officials were reluctant to discuss their marketing plans in any depth. But they hinted they'll address another concern customers had when the last Taurus came out.
"My objective is to be equal to or lower in (production) cost" than the outgoing Taurus, even with all the added new content, Marinaro said. Industry observers expect that to translate into, at most, a very small price hike next fall, when the 2000 Taurus reaches showrooms. And that should bode well for the new car’s success, said Jim Hall, a Detroit-based marketing consultant with AutoPacific Inc.
The changes made on the new Taurus "fix a lot of the problems the last car had in the marketplace," Hall said. "The new car is good enough to be in the running for No. 1 again."
But considering the competitive nature of the American market, Hall quickly added that even with a brand-new car, Ford will likely have to offer rebates and other incentives to fight off competitors like the Camry. And even then, Taurus might not hold its lead for long. Two years from now, Toyota will launch a new Camry, and Honda will unveil a new Accord.
In the midsize market, it seems, success is, at best, a short-lived phenomenon.