The 2000-model Taurus likely won't turn heads, but then neither does the Honda Accord or Toyota Camry. It's a fact that hasn't been lost on Ford Motor Co. since the previous, more elliptically styled version of the car broke cover in 1996 to mixed reviews.

The message to Ford was unmistakable: Midsize car buyers prefer bland to bold in their styling recipes.

With its newly homogenized styling, enhanced safety features, including Autoliv Inc.-made dual stage air bags, Breed Technologies Inc. safety belt restraint system, and a host of what Ford calls "surprise and delight" details and features, a greater number of midsize car buyers may again find something to like in what essentially is an all new exterior package, sans the doors.

Jim O'Connor, Ford's saavy division president, isn't making any bold sales predictions for the 2000 Taurus, hedging his bets by saying, "I really believe this car is a sleeper."

He just may be right, a conclusion reached after some quality seat time behind the wheel of the new car. "Our approach on this vehicle was to put in what the customer wants," says Dave Marinaro, Taurus chief program engineer.

So Mr. Marinaro and his team added 0.8 ins. (2 cm) more of front and 1.9 ins. (4.8 cm) of rear headroom, reduced interior noise, added 1.2 cu.-ft. (34L) to the trunk and widened the rear track of the car 0.25 ins. (6 mm) to give it a better stance.

Steering in the Taurus sedan also has been greatly improved. Gone is the unloved electronic variable-assist power-steering system that always made the car feel too twitchy (Ford also saved about $35 per unit, too) when it went from one transition to another. Without all of that variable effort - and with new compression bushings on the sway bar - the buildup of steering now feels much more linear.

Customers also wanted less noise, so Taurus now uses materials such as laminated steel and doors with full encasement rubber seals. Noise reductions also were obtained by raising the cowl of the Taurus 0.64 ins (16 mm), which got air flow away from the windshield wipers. There also is sound deadening material in the Lear Corp. carpet and in the wheel wells. The trunk of the Taurus also gets fully trimmed, further helping to keep noise out of the cabin. The end result is a 40% reduction in sound levels.

The front corners of the Taurus have been raised about 1.2 ins. (30 mm) to help give drivers a better perception of where the nose ends. The grille also has been enlarged for improved cooling to Ford's two V-6s, which get a boost in horsepower and torque. The 3.L OHV Vulcan gets 10 hp more to 155 hp and 14 lb.-ft. (19 Nm) of torque to 185 lb.-ft. (251 Nm).

The DOHC Duratec 3L (a $695 option) drops 30 lbs. (13.6 kg), thanks to composite cam covers and intake manifold, fabricated steel right exhaust manifold and a single exhaust system that replaces the former dual system. The exhaust switch also saved costs but didn't impact horsepower and torque output. Both added 15 to the bottom line: 200 hp at 5,650 rpm and 200 lb.-ft. (271.16 Nm) of torque at 4,400 rpm.

This version of the Taurus will be the last on this platform, which first debuted in 1986. The next-generation Taurus is due out in September 2003 as a 2004 model. Suppliers say that vehicle tentatively is slated to be built off a version of the Volvo S80 platform.