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Styling Misfires: The 1996 Ford Taurus

August 8, 2011 by Matt

1997 Ford Taurus Sedan

Today we begin a series on cars that may not have become industry bywords for ugliness, like the Edsel or Pontiac Aztek, but whose still off-putting styling played a role in their fall from grace, or their lack of initial success. Before we dive in, I should point out that these are all observations based on anecdotal evidence, and simply advance a theory; nothing more. Besides, aesthetic taste is so subjective that any attempt to tether impressions of a car’s looks to a hard number like vehicle sales is risky at best. Still, I believe a correlation can be made, even if we can’t prove actual causality.

The first example is the much-ballyhooed full redesign of the Ford Taurus for the ’96 model year. Entering that year, the Taurus was coming off a four-year streak as the best-selling car in the US. Ford was eager to recreate the enthusiastic reception the then-radical first-generation Taurus received in ’86. And after the hype and the rollout, the car did keep its best-seller title for ’96, mainly due to fleet sales. However, in ’97, the Taurus was displaced by the Toyota Camry, and hasn’t come close to the top spot since. With that kind of a hard-and-fast break, it’s difficult not to wonder what happened. Automotive history reveals that as much as buyers are interested in the fresh and new, lack of change tends to lead to a more gradual decline in a model’s sales over a number of years, whereas sudden change in the wrong direction produces a much more abrupt reaction. With that in mind, if the Taurus sales dropped off a cliff, what might have been the sudden change that repulsed buyers? The engine, drivetrain and chassis were broadly similar between ’95, the last year of the previous generation and ’96, the first year of the next. The only major change was…the styling. And major it was.

1997 Ford Taurus Sedan

In retrospect, it’s easy to pick out the flaws in the styling: An odd, alien look to the fascia, weirdly blended taillights, ubiquitous blob-like shapes and curves everywhere without a hint of tension to hold them together.

1997 Ford Taurus Interior

The interior had pretenses of being radical, but the interior volume was sacrificed in order to achieve the desired look on the outside, and the placement of the controls—although they looked superficially different—was profoundly conventional.

1997 Ford Taurus Wagon

The wagon deserves special mention. With the understanding that 1996 fell smack in the middle of the great SUV boom of the mid-late ’90s, when waves of buyers were abandoning station wagons in favor of trendy new SUVs, it’s difficult to size up the ’96 Taurus wagon and conclude it didn’t accelerate the exodus from the body style. It didn’t help, of course, that the previous-generation Taurus wagon was one of the most handsome, integrated-looking examples of the type, but the ’96 version seemed to go out of its way to estrange its buying public, with its weird flying-buttress C-pillars designed so that the wagon could use the sedan’s doors as a cost-cutting measure. Whatever cachet a wagon had—and it never had much—completely evaporated with the introduction of the seemingly backpack-laden vehicle shown above.

Overall, the ’96 Taurus was intended to be the vanguard of Ford’s new “bio-mechanical” styling direction. But it had the opposite effect: Its icy reception accelerated the automaker’s plans to introduce their much better-received New Edge aesthetic, a look which basically disavowed everything the ’96 Taurus stood for, visually.

It’s not that the car wasn’t considered ugly in its day—it was—but its looks weren’t always identified as the primary catalyst for its decline, which I believe they definitely were. Buyers frequently don’t know what they want, but they almost always know what they don’t want, and the looks of the mid-’90s Taurus certainly fell into that category for many.

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series wherein I discuss unsuccessful cars whose styling was their overlooked (or denied) Achilles heel. Read the other installments here:

Filed under: Aesthetics, Ford, Styling Misfires

2 Comments

  1. Eric says:

    Putting aside it’s ugliness, those are the worst Taurus/Sables to ever own.
    The bulk of the ones for sale now either have a transmission that’s ready to crap out (or already has) or a bad heater core (which requires the removal of the entire dashboard). Most of those can be had here (PA) for $1000 or less.
    And it’s not just because they’re getting old. There are a lot of 1st gen Taurus/Sables out and about that are still running around on original drivetrains.
    The wagons aren’t very common due to their original selling price.
    Back in 1997, a fairly well optioned wagon ran $27k or more.
    To put it into perspective, that was the price of a well optioned gas engined F-350 crew cab dually.

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