Photographs by Jack Baruth

It would be poetic to say that the return of the Great American Sedan was announced as the speedometer of the 2010 Taurus SHO swept past the one-hundred-and-twenty-mile-per-hour mark with the insouciant prowess of a young Mark McGwire taking practice swings in the batter’s box. And it would be more than delightful to describe the way this big sedan trail-braked into an off-camber hairpin, smoking in sideways and providing my dry-heaving fellow member of The Press As A Whole the most panoramic view possible of the Great Smoky Mountains above the spectacular dashboard and sculpted bonnet while the steering spoke to me with crystalline clarity and the transmission snapped off two flawless downshifts. Or I could describe how, on a hill so steep walking it would be a challenge, the twin-turbo SHO squeaked its front tires for a nearly imperceptible moment before swapping drive to the back wheels and rocketing us up the slope with the force of a small-block Chevy.

The truth of the matter, however, is that I knew everything I needed to know about the 2010 Taurus when I was handed a floppy-looking interior door skin.

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There are more ways to skin a door than there are to skin a cat, you see. Entry-level cars use cheap plastics in big undifferentiated slabs. Camcords and Maltimas use a slightly better grade of material in a manner that does nothing to hide the essential plastic-ness of the interior. BMWs and Audis use mass-produced leather or Naugahyde panels set into a soft plastic door. If there’s stitching, it’s done by machine, and the leather is usually relatively low-cost stuff. Finally, Rolls-Royces and other high-end cars use top-end leather, stitched by hand and pulled around “forming blocks” to create a completely unique appearance for each panel.

For the 2010 Taurus, Ford hand-stitched cost-no-object leather around individual blocks and assembled a multi-piece, hand-stitched leather door equal to the very best. Once. Then they used a very high-resolution sort of mold to capture every last individual detail, from ragged hand stitching to the way each individual door featured slightly different wrinkles from the leather around the corners of the armrest. With that done, they sprayed a special polyurethane compound into the mold. Presto! A precise copy of a hand-sewn door, right down to the way the stitches feel on the “leather”.

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It’s an outstanding way to bring the interior appointments of quarter-million-dollar cars into a vehicle that starts at $25,995, and it’s in a way emblematic of how the Taurus was developed. The car is positively slathered with new or new-in-the-class technologies, some obvious (the MyKey system that allows you to set a maximum speed for the valet key) and some not so obvious (the fact that the Alcantara-esque seat inserts of the SHO are made from recycled bottecaps). The styling is absolutely unique in the class, particularly from the rear, and the interior is a solid step above what you’ll find in the competition, both in feature count and general aesthetics.

What is the competition? It isn’t the Accord or Camry, even though those cars have traditionally been the mortal enemies of Ford’s mechanical bull. Fighting that battle is the Fusion’s job now. Rather, think Avalon and Maxima on the Japanese side and Audi A4 and Mercedes C300 from the Germans. Ford uses the Audi A6 for benchmarking and comparison, but in terms of price this is an A4 competitor. The 1986 Taurus was a volume sedan that eventually became the best-selling car in America, but thisTaurus is something else. It’s a premium car, aimed at the older consumer or the more style-conscious one. Boomers whose retirement savings have shrunk beyond comprehension lately will find that the Taurus, particularly in Limited trim, offers room, power, and aesthetics similar to that found in more expensive foreign sedans. Think of it as a budget indulgence.

We tested two cars: a white Limited FWD and a red SHO Ecoboost. The Limited was quiet, comfy, and stable well past the hundred-mile-per-hour mark on roads shiny with standing water. Deliberate attempts on our part to induce instability during high-speed hydroplaning were dealt with easily by simple design; the big lump under the trunk pulls the car straight and the suspension, which features a new “1:1 geometry” that allows the engineers to use equally-tuned shocks front and rear, is stable by default.

What’s the Taurus like to drive? Well, it’s like a Lincoln MKS. Haven’t driven one of those? Your loss, but let’s use a few other examples. Think Audi A6, Nissan Maxima, or perhaps a nearly perfected variant of the underrated Chrysler LH cars. This is a well-sorted, quiet, rattle-free big sedan which easily matches the big Japanese front-drivers on NVH measurements. The real difference between Taurus and the competition comes from the interior, which has a wide, sloping dashboard, premium-looking instruments stuffed full of backlit, glass-like acrylics, and Ford’s outstanding current generation of switchgear.

It’s easily the most upscale experience available anywhere for short of thirty grand, and this is even true of the cloth-seated cars, which have deep, characterful fabric of the type that was once seen occasionally on Mercedes-Benzes imported through the so-called “grey market”. Rear-seat room, a particular virtue of the previous-generation Five Hundred/Taurus, continues to be excellent, while the front-seat passengers have the option of selecting BMW-style massaging seats with both heating and cooling functions.

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The best front seat available in the Taurus lineup is the aforementioned bottlecap-suede variant in the SHO; not because it’s any comfier than the others, but because it connects the driver to Ford’s stunning new EcoBoost engine. This twin-turbo marvel, largely based on the existing Duratec but with changes designed to promote durability and heat resistance, turns the Taurus from a pleasant sedan to an electrifying one. In a straight line, there are very few other thirty-eight-thousand-dollar cars that won’t be immediately presented with the SHO’s tail lamps.

Our drive through the twisty roads of North Carolina revealed the SHO’s considerable strengths and not inconsiderable weakness. Let’s start with the good stuff. Although the bones of the Taurus are somewhat related to the first-gen Volvo S80, there’s very little Swedish reserve in the Ford’s chassis. Instead, we have that rarest of things: a front-drive-platform (with all-wheel-drive added) big sedan that is light on its feet at speed. The EPAS wacky-electro-steering works pretty well at all speeds, providing trustworthy information about the road below.

The all-wheel-drive is fundamentally a hack, being more or less the same transverse adaptation that sits under my wife’s Ford Flex, but the transmission response has been sharpened and the result is a car that scampers out of corners regardless of steering-wheel position. It’s no Mitsubishi Evolution, but it has torque that no stock Evo will ever have and the manumatic will run against the rev limiter all day without making an unwanted upshift. On back roads, it’s a fast car despite the size. One black mark: the wheel-mounted shifter paddles are abysmal. The design isn’t bad, and BMW uses something similar. The difference is that Ford’s paddles are made of flimsy plastic, making it difficult to tell under stress whether the shift request actually clicked through. The good news: the computer is too smart to blow up the engine, so a motivated driver can slap them five or six times on every corner entry in the confidence that the car will grab the lowest appropriate gear for corner exit.

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Our backroad drive was the very definition of frustration. We started at the back of the pack and had to pass pretty much every poky journo in the group before pulling off for photos and repeating the process. It’s just so easy to pass untalented drivers in the SHO: let the engine bring you past the next car ahead, point the nose, rotate the car into the corner on the brakes, floor the throttle early, let the AWD sort it out.

The SHO’s suspension is remarkably decent, although a triple-digit attack of a camber-changing corner combination exceeded the available damping and allowed both rear wheels to leave the ground for a terrifying moment while we struggled to control more than two tons of speeding Ford. The reality is that this isn’t a razor-sharp cafe racer in the vein of the 1989 original. That car took its inspiration from the BMW M3, where this one is very much a 335i type of car: big power, big weight, luxury as the primary goal. And just like a 335i, it doesn’t stop. The brakes are miserable.

Let’s restate that, just so nobody misses it. The brakes on the SHO are in no way up to the task. It’s not just they aren’t track-worthy. They aren’t even ready for a fast road. This is a thirteen-second car with the same kind of brake hardware one might find on a Camry, and the mismatch is egregious. There is a “Performance Pack” coming with better brake pads, but what this car needs is the Brembos from the Shelby GT500, stat.

Faced with fifty miles of fast road, a splendid EcoBoost motivator, and brakes that quickly let the pedal sink to the floor on corner entry, we cut pace between corners and used lighter, sharper applications to minimize heat buildup. But we still hoovered up traffic like the world’s biggest Dyson. This is a very rapid car in the real world, made more so by the fact that the experience behind the wheel is just so soothing. Snuggled in the SHO’s massaging seats, listening to the superb sound system, visually amused by the yes-it’s-real-metal trim on the dashboard, it’s easy to not realize that the speedometer is quickly creeping up into go-to-jail-for-a-long-time areas. This car would be faster from point to point than a Ferrari Testarossa, at least as long as the brakes held up, but it’s as big as an S-Class. Think about that.

The 1986 Taurus carried the hopes of the Ford Motor Company on its shoulders. This 2010 model has a far more modest mission: to provide sedan buyers an affordable premium choice and to restore a bit of the tarnished luster to Ford’s American passenger-car business. It’s a small goal, but it’s an important one. For more than half a century, the American Dream was symbolized by a stylish, powerful, domestic sedan in one’s driveway. If any car can bring those days back, this is the one to do it. Don’t believe me? Open a door and take a look.

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Jack Baruth

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