Taurus. Ignoring the fact that this is the astrological sign of my birth, it is also a word when associated with the doyen of the US car rental fleet that inspired extreme feelings of antipathy, to both me and countless other people for more years than any of us would care to remember. What had once been the best-selling car in America had been left undeveloped, so by the time of its ultimate demise in 2007 (it lived on for rental fleet customers for at least a year after retail sales ceased), it was seriously outclassed, with few redeeming features and several rather scary ones, especially the terrible braking performance in the wet. For reasons that escape everyone other the Ford Motor Company’s marketing department, when the sort-of replacement car, the Five Hundred, came up for a facelift, they decided to dust off this oh-so-hated name plate and to stick it on what is, by all accounts, a vastly better car.
At the time that Ford decided to replace the egregious Taurus with two cars, one smaller (the Fusion) and one larger (the Five Hundred), they also launched a cross-over vehicle, based loosely on the larger of these two cars, and called it Freestyle. At facelift time, it was renamed the Taurus X, thereby reinforcing the fact that under the skin, this car is closely related to the regular sedan version. Marketed as a “Crossover”, the car sports a grey coloured set of lower body cladding, roof rails and a ride height greater than that of an ordinary estate car. The Taurus X has not really been a success, though. In many ways, you could see it as Henry’s rather more affordable equivalent to a Mercedes R Class, another car which has delivered a far from stellar showroom performance. The Taurus X ceases production during 2009, and is already virtually extinct from the rental fleets, but I spotted one right by the Gold Booth in Las Vegas airport, looking rather smart in its Sangria Red metallic paint, and asked if I could take it. Hertz duly obliged.
No question that this is a big car. It is designed to seat 6 people, with two captain’s style armchair seats in the middle of the car, and a third row of seats behind, which are really only designed for two people, and preferably not of adult size. The roof line does rise towards the back of the car, so there is decent head room, and there is more than enough leg room for those consigned to be back row, as well. Behind all the seats is some luggage space, but not a lot. It is, however, very deep, as this area is well behind the rear axle and fuel tank. It was more than enough for my suitcase to sit upright and you could easily have piled two more on top of it. As you would hope for in a car sold on versatility, there are lots of permutations to increase luggage space. First of all, the rearmost seats can be folded flat. This is done by pulling one of the levers on the rear side of each of the seats, which tips the backrest down flat. You then pull on the long cord and the whole thing swivels on a pantograph style hinge to fold flat on the floor, giving a floor area that is now extensive. If you want even more space, you can also fold down the middle pair of seats, by tipping each backrest onto the respective cushions.
This gives an even flat luggage area all the way from the tailgate. Yet more space can be created by tipping the middle chairs upright, so they are against the front seat backs, leaving a deeper area in the middle of the car. Inside the car, there is a huge cubby between the seats, door bins which had a moulded area large enough to take my bottle of water it stayed cooler there than putting it in the cup holders in the centre console), a rather pokey glove box, a cubby on top of the dash, all for the front seat passengers. There are pockets on the rear of the front seats for those in the middle of the car. Lack of space, therefore, is definitely not a weakness for the Taurus X.
Lack of power just might be. There is only one engine option, the 3.5 litre V6 Duratec engine, coupled with a six speed automatic gearbox. It develops 245 bhp. When the original Five Hundred and Freestyle were launched, the biggest complaint was that their 3.0 litre engines and CVT transmissions simply were not up to powering a car which is in fact bigger than the legendary Crown Vic. I’m perhaps now quite glad I did not drive either model in this guise. The problem with this powerplant seems to be that it feels just too docile. It is unquestionnably very smooth, and the engine is nicely refined. It is also pretty economical, averaging out at over 30 mpg – good news, as the fuel tank appears to be a smaller than usual affair at only 16 gallons. But the problem is that when you put your foot down even moderately hard, nothing much happens. It is all terrible leisurely and genteel. Put your foot down hard, and the engine does wake up and the Taurus X can then rocket forward with decent momentum. A graphic example came when I was heading up the I-15 freeway, with cruise control set to 75mph (yes, too many variants of law enforcement personnel around to suggest I should do more!), and at the first sight of what I thought was a reasonably gentle incline, the car changed three gears and revved itself silly just so it could maintain the set speed. That little episode was less than relaxing, but otherwise – when I control the throttle pedal – the Taurus X did prove to be a very relaxing cruiser, and in this respect vindicated my choice of a car like this for 4 days of not inconsiderable travel.
I am also not totally convinced by the driving dynamics. Although there are front wheel drive versions available, my test car was an All Wheel Drive. It steered well enough, with light and positive feel, but the handling had me wondering just a bit. A combination of quite a lot of body roll and rather more understeer than you would perhaps like meant that on swooping curves in the mountains, which is where a lot of the test mileage was conducted, it was quite hard work to drive and it did not always feel quite as tidy as I would like. A mis-understanding on the time zone meant that when I came to leave Bryce Canyon, to head for my hotel some 76 miles away, it was actually 8pm, not 7pm. What was less clear from the map was that the road I was planning to take was going to climb up to a few feet shy of 10,000, and drop down again. With next to no traffic, it was actually a fun journey, but some of the bends were not quite as neat as perhaps a better handling car would have delivered.
Still, I was able to make “good progress”, without feeling in any imperilled. I can say that the brakes on long descents – steep to the Americans, but at 8%, a nothing to Europeans – presented no problems. There is a foot operated parking brake, set and released by pressing on the pedal. When off, it is quite high, and a little awkward. Needless to say, I have just used the transmission brake. The Taurus X rides well, and the seats are very comfortable, so covering long distances was not a problem. When I first got the car, I thought it enormous, and quite hard to manoeuvre in and out of tight parking spaces, but I quickly adjusted. When you realise that the very back of the car is more or less what you can see from inside the car, it is less of a problem. One neat feature I did like was a drop down mirror in front of the sunglasses holder on the roof, which allows you to see the inside of the car. This would be very useful if you had passengers in all three rows of seats – especially young or troublesome ones and you wanted to see what they are doing.
One thing that will surprise most European is the quality of the interior. Finally, with this car – just like the Mercury Sable I drove last year – Ford has got something which looks pretty good. The test car was in SEL specification, which is the bottom trim offered. Even so, that means you get leather seats, which are trimmed with a perforated style to the centre of the seat, in a soft leather. It is not up to the standards of the leather in my Audi, but then it costs about half the price. The dash is moulded from good quality plastic, with the same sort of texture and finish as you get in a Euro spec Focus, though it is not as soft to the touch. Even so, the quality of the moulding, the fit of the different pieces on the dash and the doors, and the way it is all designed is just light years better than what Ford was offering only one model back. The centre of the dash is finished in a dark ebony style trim, which looks OK, and provides some colour contrast. The main instruments are presented in a neat, simple hooded binnacle, with two large ones – speedo and rev counter – and two smaller ones for fuel and temperature. The dials are a little smaller than usual, but they are crisply marked. There is a single column stalk that controls the wipers front and back and indicators, and the light switch is on the dash. The centre of the dash houses a shallow lift up storage compartment, then below the central air vents is the stereo and the controls for the air con and climate control. There are separate settings for front and rear of the Taurus X. The system dealt effectively with day time temperatures that exceeded 90 degrees, with no problem.
I handed the Taurus X back with some regrets. As a vehicle for covering large distances, comfortably, it hit the spot. It would have done so with several more passengers than just me on board, too. As a comfortable cruiser, it excelled. It seemed to me that it did offer the advantage of more space than the now obsolete regular “wagon”, without the drawbacks of the SUV or mini-van. The market did not agree with me, of course, and Taurus X did not sell. It will be interesting to see if the Flex – which is largely based on the same conceptual idea, but which is notably larger, and available with a wide range of options to “customise” it – can do any better.