Taurus! Taurus! Taurus! That's the car everyone's talking about as the 1996 model year begins, and with good reason: The re-engineered, re-designed Ford Motor Co. midsize car is the newest of the new -- a controversial aesthetic ground-breaker introduced during a year when tweak and meek are the prevailing new-model themes.

Taurus is not alone in sporting new sheetmetal and underpinnings, of course. But it's by far the boldest statement. Add to that the sheer size of the midsize market -- 4 million this year -- where it competes against some formidable competitors, and you have the makings for a knock-down, drag-out donnybrook.

That's likely to be true in the overall '96 marketplace because by most accounts it'll remain flat at around 15 million light vehicles -- in the same ballpark as '94 and '95. Many automotive analysts and economists, stung by forecasts for model-year 1995 that proved to be wildly optimistic, so far are playing it cool.

A series of prime-rate boosts by the Federal Reserve Board aimed at heading off inflation is blamed for the sharp springtime dip in car and truck sales. Since then the outlook has brightened considerably, and many experts now say the slump is history and see smooth sailing ahead (see WAW -- Sept. '95, p. 71).

But sorting who's going to get what share of the 15-million pie is not easy. With sport/utility vehicles (SUVS) hotter than a prairie fire and small sporty subcompacts as cold as Icelandic cod, the market's swiftly changing.

On the following pages, WAW rates the '96 cars and trucks. chronicles supplier involvement in the new models, and checks out '96 technical and marketing developments.