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1996 Ford Taurus SHO

Base Price of Test Vehicle: $26,480 (Price Includes Destination Charge)

Options on Test Vehicle: Leather Sport Bucket Seats, Preferred Equipment Package 211B (power moonroof, remote keyless entry system, perimeter anti-theft, CFC-free air conditioning, JBL audio system, anti-lock brakes, P225/55ZR16 tires), 6-Disc CD-Changer, High Altitude Principal Use Emissions

Price of Vehicle as Tested: $29,590 (Price Includes Destination Charge)

Changing of the Guard

by B. Grant Whitmore
Photos by Greg Anderson

I was excited when Ford called me up to say that they were dropping off the new Taurus SHO. I was really impressed with the redesigned Taurus, and couldn't wait to get my greedy hands on the high-performance variant. I called Edmund'sŪ photographer, Greg Anderson, and had him race over to snap some pix of the car immediately, as the sky was threatening to let loose with another of Denver's late-afternoon thunderstorms. While waiting for Anderson to arrive, I reflected on the history of the SHO and its probable place in the memories of car enthusiasts.

I remember the first time a SHO was pointed out to me; it was during my senior year of high school and some friends and I were engaged in the most American of Friday night pastimes: cruising. My buddy Sean quit gawking at cuties in the next lane long enough to point out the very plain-looking Taurus in front of us. He got all excited and said, "That's the SHO, that's the new SHO!" I looked a little closer and tried to figure out what in the hell he was talking about. What was a SHO and what did it have to do with the designated family-hauler in front of us? To hide my ignorance, I grunted in agreement and suggested we stop at Jack-in-the-Box for some flimsy tacos. Later that week, leafing through a Car and Driver in my dentist's office, I figured it out. The Ford Taurus SHO did for American sedans what most people thought was impossible: it made them fun.

The first SHO was aimed squarely at the aging-boomer audience; men and women that had grown up on Mustangs, MGs, Camaros, and GTOs who were now being forced into boring sedans, wagons and minivans. The timing was perfect; speed-hungry mommies and daddies snapped up the 4-door road-warrior, singing the praises of its powerful, Yamaha-built engine and snick-snick manual gear-box. "Who says 4-doors have to be boring?" was the rallying cry of these would-be racers. Legions of American buyers were won back from the Nissan Maxima and BMW 3-Series sedans with the introduction of this car. Today there are a number of American cars that do what the SHO does: the Pontiac Bonneville SSE, Cadillac Seville STS, Chevrolet Impala SS, Pontiac Grand Prix, and Ford Contour SE are just a few examples, but at the time there were few sport sedans built on these shores that could match the Taurus SHO for fun and practicality. As a result, the SHO quickly amassed a cult-like following.

Now, Ford has decided to test the faithful by changing the SHO's ingredients. As before, there is little to distinguish the SHO from its pedestrian relatives, the G, GL and LX. The subdued badging, alloy wheels, ZR-16 tires and tacky decklid spoiler are the only giveaways that this vehicle is anything more than dad's work car. Under the hood, however, the changes are dynamic. For the first time, the SHO has V-8 power, compliments of Yamaha. The new engine displaces 3.4-liters, and produces 225 horsepower and 225 lbs./ft. of torque; slightly better than the previous 6-cylinder model. Unfortunately, the bean counters at Ford decided that it would not be cost-effective to make a manual transmission available on the SHO since there wouldn't be enough people ordering it to justify its cost. Too bad, it's one of the things that set the original SHO apart.

As with all Tauruses this year, the SHO has more interior space than its predecessor, easily accommodating five full-size adults. The trunk space is generous and easily held the largest grocery loads we could throw at it. The Taurus's interior was decked out in saddle leather interior that was nicely gathered, providing a soft, luxurious feel. The user-friendly dashboard and instrument panel provoked no complaints from our staff, who were easily won over by the Integrated Control Panel found on the Mercury Sable tested earlier this year. Ford's outstanding JBL audio system with a 6-disc CD changer was an appreciated option on the SHO, and the rich tones emitted by its multiple speakers were a pleasure to behold. Unfortunately, the moonroof had a problem fitting into the headliner and the material was already pulling away at the seams. The leather-wrapped steering wheel provided a nice grip, but the sporty automatic shift lever only reminded us of the dearly departed manual tranny.

On the road, the Ford Taurus SHO really shines. Acceleration is fast and effortless, and even mashing the pedal to the floor results in little torque steer. The variable-assist rack-and-pinion steering is top notch, providing excellent feel and control at any speed. The 4-speed transaxle makes the most of the 3.4-liter engine providing fast kick-downs for passing and smooth upshifts when accelerating. The suspension handled Denver's pockmarked freeways with ease, soaking up the big bumps and expansion joints without sacrificing handling. The SHO is well balanced, allowing quick turn-in for corners with just a hint of understeer. The excellent tires never lost their grip, and despite their performance orientation were quiet and not too harsh. The Taurus's anti-lock brakes provided excellent stopping power under wet and dry conditions, and were easy to modulate due to great pedal feel. On the twisty mountain roads outside of Boulder, Colorado the SHO was able to strut its stuff. No Passing lanes were about the only thing that slowed this car down, as we carved a delicate path through the out-of-towners and pleasure drivers early one weekday morning. The car exhibited little body roll on tight corners and had no trouble with the changing altitude or stiff uphill climb. Despite the car's obvious skills, we were left a little cold by the SHO; we really like the new Taurus, so perhaps we were expecting too much out of this car. We wanted it not just to move our bodies, but our souls as well. Unfortunately, it only did the former.

When Anderson arrived to take pictures, we tried to hash out what this car meant to people and where the best place to photograph it would be. It doesn't have the race track boldness of the Chevy Camaro or Ford Mustang, so a tire-smokin' shot on a lonely stretch of highway was out. It doesn't have the go-anywhere ability of the Subaru Legacy or Jeep Grand Cherokee so a picture of the SHO on a dirt road surrounded by Colorado's famous Aspen trees seemed a bit stupid. It doesn't even have the ritzy panache of a Lincoln Mark VIII or Oldsmobile Aurora, so we couldn't take the picture in front of a swanky downtown restaurant. Nope, the Taurus is a family sedan with a killer engine; nothing more, nothing less. As a result we parked the car in front of a nice suburban house, and snapped a few shots.

We think this illustrates the main problem with the new Taurus SHO. Take away the high-revving V-6 and manual transmission and you're left with a car that doesn't really stand out from all of the vehicles that copied the original SHO. For about the same price, a Pontiac Bonneville offers more room and a supercharged engine. A Nissan Maxima SE is available for less and, you can opt for a 5-speed transmission. Move up to the big-leagues, and you can choose a Chevy Impala SS with a big, American V-8 engine and rear-wheel drive. No, the Taurus SHO is not a bad car, but the competition is much more fierce than it was when the first SHO was introduced.

Ford works very hard to make their cars likable to all people. Some of their ideas have been huge successes; witness the unmatched success of Ford's car-like pickups and SUVs, and the fast but friendly Mustang. Unfortunately, this philosophy sometimes backfires. Sure, the Taurus SHO is fast and fun-to-drive, but by making it friendly to so many people it has lost some of the rawness that was part of the original's defining character. We don't think you'll kick yourself for buying one, but you may find yourself staring longingly at the next BMW 328i that rolls by.

Second Opinion
by Christian J. Wardlaw

Our Taurus SHO test car arrived with 4,500 miles, a stress tear in the carpet near the dead pedal, sunroof trimming that was pulling away from the seams, leaving gaping holes in the headliner, and a feral noise in the dashboard that sounded like a third grader practicing his favorite note after one lesson with an alto saxophone. Furthermore, the driver's seat framing already exhibited sagging toward the center of the car. I wasn't impressed.

Nor was I impressed with the lack of low-end torque exhibited by the Yamaha 3.4-liter V-8. The SHO behaves just like the Taurus LX, but with a throatier exhaust note and slightly perceptible increases in acceleration throughout the power band. The transmission still hesitates far too long to kick down, and the car still suffers an overly nose-heavy feel in turns and on rough pavement.

I am impressed with the handling and braking of the SHO. Also, I find the car very attractive, though the rear spoiler is absolutely stupid. Please Ford, offer a delete option for this thing. Our tester was painted a rich, deep green with a nicely contrasting carmel leather interior. Attractive five-spoke alloys, thankfully devoid of chrome plating, filled the wheel wells nicely. The JBL stereo was a pleasure to listen to, and I had no problem finding an excellent driving position. Rear passenger room is generous, and we find the integrated control panel a breeze to use. Ford may want to consider offering a two-tone dashboard; the all black expanse of vinyl and plastic looks cheap rather than Germanic in the Taurus.

Did I enjoy the SHO? Yes. Do I like the SHO? Definitely. Would I buy the SHO? Maybe, if the Audi A4, BMW 328i, Cadillac Catera, Chevrolet Impala SS, Ford Contour SE, Lexus ES 300, Mazda Millenia S, Mercedes C280 Sport, Mercury Mystique LS, Nissan Maxima SE, Pontiac Grand Prix GTP, Volkswagen Passat GLX, and Volvo 850 Turbo were all sold out.

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