For Those Who'd Like to Drive a Jujube

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The 1996 Ford Taurus arrives with the suggestion that its development team went to lunch and left the styling computer unattended. Programmed to explore eggs, nuclear submarines, teardrops and tadpoles, the machine doodled an automobile from nothing but interlocking ovoids.

That's it, yelped a designer. Out with boxes, in with Jujubes. Avant-garde, but aerodynamically viable and cuddly with a whisper of Asian allure. Radical, but reminiscent of mother and farmhouse breakfasts.

And, went the wisdom at Dearborn, innovative enough to attract repeat buyers, entice new customers from imports, and carry the bullish Taurus into its fourth year as America's best-selling passenger car.

The startling new look is also a huge risk, a $2.5-billion redevelopment bet that different equates to exciting and that the car's new visuals will attract, not repulse.

Unfortunately, anyone looking for sharper horns on the new Taurus will find numerous invisible refinements, but basically the same ordinary performance from a V-6 making a lazy 145 horsepower, with a slappy four-speed automatic making too much ado about motoring.

When introduced a decade ago, the Taurus showed only one oval and that was the Ford badge on the grille.

At a quick count, the new Taurus is a cluster of six dozen ellipticals. Oval headlights. Oval rear window. Oval ashtrays, door handles, turn signals, silhouette, air vents and the ultimate devotion to the obovate form--white ovals within red ovals as courtesy lights inside the front doors.

As a car, this is a statue to motion sickness. The grille is a grinning zucchini, giving Taurus the look of those cute Techron guys in the Chevron commercials. If it hadn't been a detriment to ride and handling, somebody might have suggested oval wheels.

On the other hand, one person's uglies are another's personification of drop-dead beauty. Cross our heart, hope to die on bad sushi, but a week with the Taurus produced a noticeable forest of thumbs up, several "wows," two "real cools," and only one man poking a finger down his throat. Maybe he had the bad sushi.

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There's little doubt that the original Taurus was born a stunning success because it was a genuinely fine car amid huge, clumsy and generally awful domestic rivals. There was an Asian nuance to its lines and a European tautness to its handling.

But today, from Chrysler Concorde to Nissan Maxima, there are more than a dozen quick, comfortable, well-equipped sedans flirting in the $20,000 range. Ford isn't worried about all of them. But mentions of Honda Accord and Toyota Camry have been known to have Ford executives sending out for herbal tea and anxiety pills.

Taurus may be the sales champ. But Accord is the second-best-selling car by only a few thousand units, with Camry a very close third. In a contest this tight, there is no room for Taurus to even think about stumbling.

So Ford is splurging $120 million into advertising its highly profitable conquest car as one that will make the dream come true. It does not specify what dream.

There is a six-month, love-it-or-leave-it Taurus lease for Accord and Camry owners. Plus $50 dinner certificates for test driving a Taurus, and $250 for renewing its lease. Ford even turned to the heavens for help, paying Sherman Oaks astrologer Joyce Jillson $500 to pick a solstice-blessed introduction date for the car.

Which means my house will probably move into disarray, with Venus descending into the arms of Hugh Grant, should I continue to make criticism of products protected by the sign of Taurus.

Let's make it clear: Three million loyal Americans who currently own Tauruses cannot be accused of making unwise purchases. This has always been a filling, adequate, reliable, wholesome car. But so is food in boot camp.

Its replacement will do you no harm, shows some flashy packaging and will comfortably carry you across states and between cities. So will Greyhound.

Despite a 2.4% price increase to a new base price of $18,600, the new Taurus is still not horribly expensive to own, repair, insure, maintain or keep for five years before recycling into a graduation gift. But neither are Chevy Luminas, Toyota Camrys, Mazda 626s, Eagle Visions, Mitsubishi Galants, Volkswagen Jetta IIIs, Honda Accords, and the rest of the world's affordable, mid-size chorus line.

Although 5.4 inches longer and two inches wider, with larger interior dimensions, Taurus looks smaller because of its rounded ends and soft-boiled shape. Passenger- and driver-side air bags are standard, but anti-lock brakes are optional. So is air conditioning, anti-theft system, leather seats, JBL audio and central locking.

The car comes as a front-drive sedan and a wagon and, as always, will be reskinned and cloned by Mercury into its Sable. Two engines are available: the base, 3.0-liter V-6 producing 145 horsepower, and a 200-horsepower V-6 as the optional power plant. A new version of the fiery Taurus SHO, snorting 240 horsepower from its V-8, is scheduled for introduction next year as a 1997 model.

Unless one is geared to leisurely thoughts, movements and the somnolence of five-day cricket matches, the up-market LX with the more muscular engine might be the way to go.

Our test car was a 145-horsepower GL and performance was colorless. Accelerating to 60 m.p.h. from rest was a 12-second nap, which is slower than a Dodge Caravan and might even match an MTA bus. The four-speed automatic performed well during sedate motoring. But when stomped and ordered to pass a bullying semi, the transmission slapped and snapped and delivered more noise than motion.

Handling, particularly during brisk lane changes, was flat and reassuring owing to increased body stiffening. So was braking, with a noticeable absence of dive thanks to suspension changes borrowed in part from the Lincoln Continental. Steering tends to the neutral, but quick and agreeable in delivering whatever message was being sent to the front wheels.

Maybe we got an oddball. Maybe somebody at Ford has relatives in the discount furniture business. But the interior of our GL was a throwback to the '60s when orangy tweeds and beige velours ruled. Cheap and awful. This was upholstery looking like something Kramer would wear.

Ford is enormously proud of something it calls "the patented three-way flip fold-console seat." Or double duty armrest. With everything tucked away, the front bench stays smooth for three-across front seating. With the armrest down, accommodations become armchairs for two.

Now tug the armrest from the back and it hinges up and open, flips forward and reveals suitably shaped compartments for cups, cassette tapes, sunglasses, toll quarters or a cellular phone.

Ingenious. Also horrible for some. In the open position, the armrest makes a bridge that touches the dashboard. It completely blocks off the ashtray, so coffee and a cigarette for the minority with melting lungs is out of the question. The armrest also prevents the cigarette lighter from being used to recharge your cell phone.

So that thumping sound you hear is some poor interior designer at Ford hitting his head against a wall.

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The Taurus is far from being a sad car. It will appeal to a huge majority of Americans who are not particularly thrilled by performance or keeping up with Joe and Joanie Lumina, and just like to buy a car and forget about it.

And we were pleased by at least one oval--a panel centered on the dashboard to neatly encircle radio and climate controls in a highly visible, fumble-free environment. It's also a guarantee that until other cars come with oval mountings in their dashboards, nobody is going to steal an oval-faced radio from a Taurus.

Still, it will be interesting to see if Taurus maintains its position as America's best-selling car.

Or if there are others who think some good cars, like second marriages and coq au vin recipes, are best left alone unless change represents significant improvement.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

1996 Ford Taurus GL

Cost

* Base, $18,600. (Includes passenger- and driver-side air bags, automatic transmission, tilt steering.)

* As tested, $20,255. (Includes anti-lock brakes, air conditioning, cruise control, AM / FM stereo tape deck options package--and $550 delivery charge.)

Engine

* 3.0-liter, overhead valve V-6 developing 145 horsepower.

Type

* Front-engine, front-drive, four- or five-passenger, mid-size sedan.

Performance

* 0-60 m.p.h., as tested, 11.8 seconds.

* Top speed, estimated, 120 m.p.h.

* Fuel consumption, EPA city and highway, 20 and 29 m.p.g.

Curb Weight

* 3,326 pounds.

1996 FORD TAURUS GL

The Good: Wholesome, solid, stable sedan and fairly priced. Improved handling and ride. Looks smaller, but larger inside.

The Bad: Pallid engine, transmission that confuses easily. Styling an oval overdose.

The Ugly: Velour upholstery.

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