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Ford’s full-size bailout?

Twenty-odd years ago, the Taurus saved Ford. Can it do it again?

Ford Motor Co. will unveil its complete redesign of the car at the auto show in Detroit today, and the company is hoping that the flagship full-size sedan will set the pace for a new generation of Ford vehicles -- not to mention provide a much-needed sales boost in a competitive sector of the market at a crucial juncture.

Ford’s sales in 2008 fell 20% compared with the previous year, and it posted nearly $9 billion in losses through the third quarter. And though Ford, unlike General Motors Corp. and Chrysler, didn’t need to borrow money from the federal government last month, a failure to improve sales soon could put it in the same boat.

Because of the Taurus’ up-and-down history, the launch is fraught with symbolic import.

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It was, after all, the Taurus that single-handedly redefined the sedan in the late 1980s and became the nation’s top-selling passenger car. But it was also the Taurus, starting with an infamous oval-inspired redesign in 1996, that drew intense public scorn and became synonymous with cheap, uninspired manufacturing. Ford finally killed the Taurus in 2006 -- only to clumsily resurrect it a year later.

“This was a car that redefined Ford, but later took the company in a very different direction,” said David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research. “Now they’re trying to go back to the way things were done.”

One of a trio of unveilings Ford has set for this week, the front-wheel-drive 2010 Taurus will share a motor, a platform and a base price ($25,999) with the current Taurus. But nearly all the rest of the car has been redone to incorporate styling inspired by Ford’s highly regarded European lineup and to bring in more luxurious features to set the sedan apart from competitors such as the Chevrolet Impala and Toyota Avalon.

The idea, said Derrick Kuzak, head of global product development for Ford, is to create a car with more options -- and a higher margin. “You certainly have higher profit expectations for your flagship sedan,” he said. But first the vehicle has to find buyers.

The Taurus is one of the top-selling nameplates of all time, for any carmaker, with more than 200,000 purchased in 1986, its first year, and 1 million by 1989.

The nation was enamored of its aerodynamic design and innovative features such as a wrap-around dash with new controls that could be identified by feel, keeping the driver’s eyes on the road. By 1992, Ford was selling more than 420,000 a year. That made it the No. 1 sedan in the country, and analysts suggested the car had saved Ford from bankruptcy.

By the mid-1990s, however, Ford’s focus had shifted to highly profitable trucks and sport utility vehicles, and its redesign of the Taurus for the 1996 model year was a disaster. Not only was it widely regarded as unattractive, but also cheaply made, with Ford skimping on quality and features such as replacing modern disc brakes with outdated, but less expensive, drum brakes.

The next year, Taurus relinquished its sedan leadership to the Toyota Camry, which has held the position ever since.

By 2006, Ford sold only 174,000 of the cars, largely to rental and other fleets, and finally spiked the model. The company filled its sedan lineup with the Fusion mid-size sedan and the Five Hundred full-size car, a decision that Aaron Bragman, industry analyst at IHS Global Insight, calls “a marketing mistake.”

A year later, in a now-notorious decision, Chief Executive Alan Mulally ordered the company to rename the Five Hundred the Taurus, on the assumption that the older name had better recognition among consumers.

It was to little avail. Only 68,000 sold in 2007, and Taurus sales slipped to 53,000 last year.

“It’s crucial that they get back a bigger foothold in the sedan segment,” said Tom Libby, senior analyst at J.D. Power & Associates. “Ford needs to become a leader again.”

Enter the new Taurus. The new sedan bears many of the styling features -- including oversized rims and a characteristic second grill -- found on a line of fuel-efficient compact European Fords the company plans to bring to the U.S. starting next year. Ford has not yet released mileage ratings for the new Taurus, but it’s expected it will top the combined 21 mpg of the current offering.

One complication for Ford is that its competition is not only on other dealership lots, but also on its own. In addition to the Taurus, the second-largest American automaker already produces the Ford Crown Victoria and Mercury Grand Marquis, both full-size sedans. But Ford executives say the Taurus is aimed at a younger, slightly hipper audience.

If the design catches on, it could pave the way for a generation of new cars that Ford says will help it recapture its role as a leader in passenger cars. If not, it could mean more hard times ahead for the company.

“Ford is taking a risk, and that’s what it needs to be doing,” Bragman said. “Still, it’ll be interesting to see if the Taurus resonates with people this time around.”

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ken.bensinger@latimes.com


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