ASHVILLE, NC – The Ford Taurus has fallen on hard times.

Once the best-selling passenger car in the U.S., the Taurus nameplate has suffered numerous indignities over the years. The most egregious was being hastily slapped on the trunk of the rebadged Five Hundred sedan.

Now with the ’10 Taurus set to arrive later this summer, Ford is betting the revamped fullsize sedan will lead it into a new era of prosperity.

After a recent test drive here, the auto maker can breathe a sigh of relief. The Taurus is a solid performer with confident handling, a stout powertrain, contemporary styling, a rock-solid feel and quiet, spacious interior. It holds the road admirably, even during a downpour.

Wrapping occupants in a cocoon of silence and standardizing the way Ford vehicles look, sound and feel is a key objective for Derrick Kuzak, group vice president-global product development.

The Taurus demonstrates Kuzak’s initiative is moving forward and paying off. The car exudes the “perceived quality” every auto maker wants.

Doors close with a reassuring “thud,” rather than the hollow ring of past Ford models. The interior is well-crafted, with high-quality materials and soft touch-points where expected. The exception is the textured plastic in the foot wells and a few other spaces.

Overall, the cabin is handsome and much sportier than that of the outgoing, under-achieving model. The raised console, flowing center stack and Mustang-inspired instrument panel flow together nicely. Panel gaps are uniform throughout.

Seats are comfortable, even during an extended drive, due in no small part to Ford’s “Multi-Contour Seats with Active Motion” technology. The light massage is effective in keeping blood flowing through the driver’s back to prevent fatigue.

Adaptive cruise control with collision warning, push-button start, rain-sensing wipers, Ford Sync communications and voice-activated navigation round out the new Taurus’ advanced-technology roster.

Most of the controls are intuitive. Activating the adaptive cruise control is complicated but probably would become second-nature with practice.

Despite a vast array of technologies, the interior is surprisingly uncluttered – exactly the effect chief interior designer Lon Zaback wanted. Backseat leg room is ample.

The exterior has drawn most of the attention since the Taurus was unveiled at the 2009 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Ford designers say the human torso inspired the car’s muscular appearance and sculpted surfaces.

The new Taurus is light-years ahead of the outgoing model on the style scale, but perhaps Ford didn’t push the design envelope far enough. Few motorists pay any attention to the Taurus during our test drive through mostly sparsely populated towns nestled in the Smoky Mountains.

Large cars are not beacons of fashion. For proof, look elsewhere in the Ford stable at the ancient Crown Victoria. So appealing to the large-car demographic, while appearing contemporary, can be a challenge.

’ 10 Ford Taurus SE
Vehicle type Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 5-passenger sedan
Engine 3.5L DOHC V-6; aluminum block/heads
Power (SAE net) 263 hp @ 6,250 rpm
Torque 249 lb. ft. (302 Nm) @ 4,500 rpm
Transmission 6-speed automatic w/manual mode
Wheelbase 112.9 ins. (280.7 cm)
Overall length 202.9 ins. (483.9 cm)
Overall width 76.2 ins. (191 cm)
Overall height 60.7 in. (166.9 cm)
Curb weight 4,015 lbs. (1,916 kg)
Base price $25,170
Fuel economy 18/28 city/highway mpg (13.1-9.4 L/100 km)
Competition Toyota Avalon, Chevrolet Impala, Chrysler 300, Buick LaCrosse
Pros Cons
Toyota Avalon, Chevrolet Impala, Chrysler 300, Buick LaCrosse Man, it’s big
Competent powertrain Paddle shifting awkward
Goodbye old Taurus Hello fullsize pricing

The more pressing question relates to the competitive set. Some Ford product specialists position the new Taurus – because of its midsize heritage – against volume players such as the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, while others admit the fullsize Toyota Avalon is a more appropriate target.

Either way, the Taurus dwarfs them all, as well as the Chevy Impala, leaving the Fusion to carry Ford’s banner in the midsize segment. The all-wheel-drive Taurus trumps the Avalon by more than 600 lbs. (272 kg).

The new Taurus also lines up more directly (in both price and dimensions) with the all-new entry-luxury ’10 Buick LaCrosse.

Under the hood, Ford’s steadfast Duratec 3.5L V-6 proves more than adequate. Producing 263 hp and 249 lb.-ft. (302 Nm) of torque, the engine is a good fit, with outstanding noise, vibration and harshness levels.

Those craving more power can step up to the Taurus SHO, which boasts a tuned version of Ford’s twin-turbo direct-injected EcoBoost V-6, making 365 hp and 350 lb.-ft. (474 Nm) of torque.

In the normally aspirated Taurus, the Duratec is paired with a choice of two 6-speed automatic transmissions. The SE trim gets Ford’s “Grade-Assist” hill-holding rollback prevention feature, while the SEL and Limited series offer a SelectShift automatic that can be shifted manually via steering wheel-mounted paddles.

The paddles are a bit awkward to use, affixed to the steering wheel rather than the steering column. Shifting while turning proves cumbersome, turning some drivers into all thumbs.

Ford’s most important car program this year, the ’10 Taurus arrives in the worst automotive market in decades, so expectations for a home run launch must be qualified.

Sticker prices may shock old-time Taurus buyers who recall its midsize roots. But the car has moved up a segment, and the new pricing falls in line with other fullsizers.

The base FWD Taurus SE starts at $25,170, including destination and delivery, while the range-topping AWD Limited series lists for $33,020. With options, including adaptive cruise control ($1,195), power moonroof ($895) and voice-activated navigation system ($1,995), the price rapidly shoots out of range for midsize intenders.

Ford is marketing the new Taurus as an alternative to a family sedan, one that emphasizes the driver rather than family-hauling functionality. In that respect, the Taurus is ahead of the pack.

The original Taurus, which bowed in 1985, helped pull Ford out of one of its darkest periods. Perhaps this time the nameplate will help revive sales during one of the industry’s darkest hours.

bpope@wardsauto.com