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FolderJohn Gilbert auto reviews
 Published Saturday, July 20, 1996

Gilbert: Redesigned Taurus SHO gets a V8, but no five-speed

John Gilbert / Star Tribune


When Ford brought out a thoroughly redesigned Taurus for 1996, the SHO cult understandably worried about what might happen to their favorite sports sedan. Turns out, the new Taurus SHO is a very good car, perhaps not as much of an all-out boy-racer as its predecessor, but clearly a purveyor of sports-sedan pleasure at a commuter-sedan price.

When Ford first introduced the Taurus, its base 3-liter V6 was a docile underachiever, and buyers let Ford know about it.

So Ford sent the 3.0 V6 to Japan, where Yamaha first put dual overhead camshafts on it, then got permission to rebuild the entire engine to Yamaha specifications. That turned the Taurus into a classic sleeper.

The original Taurus was a ground-breaker in aerodynamic styling, and the 1996 model goes even further. It has drawn raves, scorn and virtually everything in between. I happen to think the new Taurus is a giant step ahead in styling and aerodynamics.

Amazingly, Ford is offering the new SHO at the same price as its predecessor, about $26,000 in base form.

The first SHOs were offered with only five-speed manual transmissions, and sales were flat. Buyers apparently were willing to spend $25,000 for a Taurus with an extra-plush velour interior and other luxury touches, but few would spend the same amount for a Taurus with a vastly superior engine, better suspension, wheels, tires, leather upholstery and overall performance competitive with the best imports.

So, a couple years back, Ford made a decision that might have offended stick-shift purists, adding an optional automatic transmission for the SHO. It worked. Sales improved, and 85 percent of SHO buyers chose automatics.

None of the handful of other U.S. sedans that offer comparably sporty flair -- such as the Pontiac Bonneville SSEi, Cadillac Seville STS, and Eagle Vision -- offers a manual five-speed.

The styling of the original Taurus had been considered radical, but in the meantime the model had become U.S. sales leader. While such market success might have tempted Ford to be cautious in the major Taurus redesign for 1996, the carmaker again chose a daring styling departure.

There would be a new SHO, too, and it would have a Yamaha-built V8! That exciting news was quickly offset by word that Ford would no longer offer a five-speed manual transmission in the SHO. At least a couple of SHO owners call me to ask for suggestions about what else to buy, now that they couldn't get a stick in the new SHO.

Finally, I got the chance to test-drive a new SHO. I was prepared to be underwhelmed, and at first, it lived down to that expectation.

When harnessed with the automatic, the SHO has plenty of power, but it takes a while to build up. The initial burst of acceleration that set apart the old V6 SHO five-speed is gone. The new one accelerates hard and well, all the way up to 6,500 rpm, but only if you stand hard on the gas. The new V8 produces 235 horsepower at 6,100 rpm, but if you drive it moderately it upshifts before it approaches its power peak.

And if you stand on it hard, you can't expect the exceptional fuel economy that this efficient engine is capable of delivering. I got 31 miles per gallon on a highway trip, and upwards of 22 in town.

The new V8 is small, at 3.4 liters, but all those valves and camshafts make it want to fly like a Formula 1 racer. But it doesn't feel as fast as the old V6 with the five-speed, and some magazines' tests have shown that it isn't.

Ford could at least offer a clutchless stick-automatic like the one in the new Eagle Vision TSi, or the BMW 840, or the Porsches.

To restrain that wonderful engine with a strong but unexciting automatic is a paradox, and a capitulation to sales that betrays the basic cult that -- however few they were in number -- put the original SHO on the map. Ironically, Ford is putting a far more innovative five-speed automatic in the 4-liter V6 Explorer than it offers in the SHO.

More than acceleration

There are some other things I disliked about the new SHO. A balky remote hood release worked only about one out of 10 times. Of course, I was reaching for it frequently because the engine is such a work of art that I wanted to show off all those curvy, tuned intake headers.

A rotating knob on the left dash controls the headlights. To turn on the foglights, you simply pull on the switch. It works the same way on the Contour and other Ford products. And it works on the SHO -- the switch, that is. One problem: There are no foglights. Nice switch, though.

The Taurus has exceptional handling, and four-wheel disc brakes haul it down in a flash. Shiftless or not, the SHO is absolutely the best handling and performing U.S. sedan.

The more you drive the SHO, the more you admire its good features. Stay on the gas to run the revs up, guide its steering gently around curves at speed, or dart around some of the usual freeway boors, and you'll realize that you would have to spend much more money to get refined excellence comparable to that of the SHO motor.

But the automatic-stick transmission in the Vision TSi makes it a surprisingly worthy competitor, even with just a single-cam, 3.5-liter V6.

The test car was a wonderfully subtle black on black. You had to be up close to read the SHO nameplate on the tail, and the little spoiler on the trunk lid is so unobtrusive that it barely distinguishes the car from a standard Taurus.

In fact, the standard Taurus with the 3-liter Duratech V6 is a strong challenger for consideration by prospective SHO buyers. And those who try the 2.5-liter V6 with the five-speed may choose that model over the SHO.

It would be a shame to miss out on the SHO engine, but stick-shifters are something of a cult. Much like the old SHO buyers were.

Nuts 'n' bolts

Drivetrain: 3.4-liter, dual-overhead-camshaft, 32-valve V8; 235 horsepower at 6,100 rpm, 230 foot-pounds of torque at 4,800 rpm. Four-speed automatic transmission. Fuel economy (observed) 23 mpg city, 31 highway.

Dimensions: Length, 198.3 inches; wheelbase, 108.5; height, 55.7; width, 73.1; curb weight, 3,358 pounds.

Standard equipment: SHO V8 engine with aluminum Ford block, aluminum Yamaha cylinder heads, coil-on-plug ignition; automatic transmission; leather seats; power windows, locks and mirrors; AM/FM/cassette stereo; keyless entry; tilt/slide sunroof; alloy wheels with high-performance all-season tires; four-wheel disc brakes; special suspension and steering.

Options: Six-disc CD player in trunk.

Competition: Pontiac Bonneville SSEi, Cadillac Seville STS, BMW 3-series, Infiniti I30, Mercedes 280 Sport, Eagle Vision TSi.

Copyright 1996 Star Tribune. All rights reserved.
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