By Andrew Ganz
Friday, Feb 11th, 2011 @ 12:00 pm
 
A small but very vocal contingent of car nuts are inexplicably passionate about "classic" Ford Taurus SHOs. To most automotive observers, these four-door sedans built over three generations during a decade or so run look just like humble family sedans. But under their hoods lurked high-performance V6 and V8 powertrains that made mincemeat out of sports cars while maintaining an incognito sleeper look.

When Ford decided that it would essentially relegate its Taurus to fleet sales beginning with a 2000 refresh, the SHO was an early catastrophe. Clamoring SHO nuts begged Ford for a rewrite, which finally arrived as a 2010 promising a new recipe for success.

We finally took Ford up on the opportunity to spend some quality time in a 2011 Ford Taurus SHO, even though we refuse to pronounce "ess-aych-oh" as "show." Sorry, Blue Oval. Not gonna happen on our watch.

What is it?
The Taurus SHO might seem like just a jazzed up full-size sedan, but it's much more than that. Its basic structure actually dates back to the 1999 Volvo S80, which was developed by that Swedish automaker before it was acquired by Ford. Fast forward to 2011 and Volvo is no longer part of Ford, but its full-size platform remains under the Blue Oval's control. Oh, and before you ask, Volvo moved on from the platform with the 2007 S80.

Ford first used this architecture in 2005 for its Taurus-replacing Five Hundred, a perennial candidate for the Dullest Car Ever Built award. Then-new CEO Alan Mulally dictated a name change after discovering that Ford let the Taurus nameplate expire and, eventually, he called for a redesign. Bowing for 2010, the latest Taurus follows in a long line of large Ford family sedans that once totally dominated the automotive landscape in America.

This latest car reprises the somewhat historic SHO nameplate, but instead of the naturally aspirated V6 and V8 front-wheel-drive models that preceded it, the new car boasts a twin-turbo EcoBoost V6 and all-wheel-drive. That's definitely a step in the right direction.

What's it up against?
With its gargantuan dimensions, the Taurus SHO best squares off against the redesigned Dodge Charger R/T.

Ford also labels luxury cars like the Mercedes-Benz E350 and BMW 535i as potential rivals, but we have a hard time believing that there will be much cross shopping.

Any breakthroughs?
Undoubtedly, the Taurus SHO is loaded with solid tech for the money. It boasts Ford's still-advanced second-generation infotainment system with Sirius Travel Link updates, a high-power Sony audio system and, if you tick all the right boxes, heated, ventilated and massaging seats covered in leather and synthetic suede.

Of course, some of the best news is hidden under its long hood. In this case, Ford's EcoBoost powertrain focuses on the second syllable - boost.

How does it look?
There's no disguising that this is a big, tall automobile. When this platform first launched as the Five Hundred in the pre-crossover era, Ford touted the car's high seating position as a way to lure SUV buyers into something different. My, how things have changed.

This latest Taurus doesn't look quite as awkwardly tall as its predecessors, but its high beltline and plentiful greenhouse still have a vaguely cartoonish vibe compared to the hunkered-down look of its Dodge rival. Moreover, this Taurus has quite a badonk-a-donk, with a posterior that stretches out well beyond the rear axle.

Proportions aside, the look is mostly inoffensive, if far from sporty aside from a set of aggressive five-spoke alloy wheels. The SHO has little to differentiate itself from lesser Taurus models - a good thing if staying covert is your goal.

Still, we think a more noticeable bodykit and more obviously unique fascias would go a long way toward making the SHO look and feel truly special.

And on the inside?
Ford aimed to make the Taurus SHO feel like a personal luxury vehicle geared at satisfying the most demanding and hedonistic needs. We're not buying it - but that doesn't mean there isn't plenty to like about these inner trappings.

Let's start with the Taurus' seats. Our tester wasn't optioned up with the available massaging function, but we fell in love with them anyway. Soft without being overly pillowy, the front thrones are as comfortable as you will find in any car at any price.

Buttons galore line the center stack, which borrows heavily from various parts bin pieces. Everything is easy to use, but nothing feels unique to the SHO.

A commanding center console takes up lots of real estate, but this big sedan has plenty of room to give. Rear seat space is enough for a solidly king-in-his-castle atmosphere with plenty of stretch-out room for a full crowd of court jesters.

Unfortunately, this king lives in the land of hard plastics. Not one surface in the entire cabin felt particularly upscale, especially the thin, scratchy black trim surrounding the center stack and the unconvincing blobs on the door panels. What soft touch materials we found were rubbery and low buck. Ford can do great interiors at this price point - check out the Ford Flex platform mate, for one.

At least all the king's men and horses will fit in the cavernous trunk. Pop open that bad boy (with the remote because there is no exterior handle) and you'll understand why the SHO's butt would make Sir-Mix-A-Lot get sprung. (Yeah, we went there)

But does it go?
We positively love this 3.5-liter twin-turbo V6. In our testing, it delivered solid, linear thrust thanks to a prodigious torque curve and it offered a level of refinement right up there with Europe's best. Ford's engineers carefully tuned the intake and exhaust to deliver a mild and refined growl that perfectly suits the vehicle's mission.

Officially, the V6 is rated at 365 horsepower and 350 lb-ft. of torque. The big news is that torque curve, which spreads out at its peak from 1,500 to 5,250 rpm. Wowzer.

From any speed, the boosted V6 is happy to play. A six-speed automatic with steering wheel-mounted flappy paddles did a nice job keeping the engine within its powerband while firing off smooth shifts. A sport mode would have been a nice addition, but the adaptive transmission certainly never delayed in delivering downshifts when needed.

This heavy flying missile - it weighs nearly 4,400 lbs., after all - was happiest on straightaways, but its balanced chassis did make the best of things when the road turned curvy. The SHO's neutral all-wheel-drive system seemed best tuned for outright grip, with each wheel eagerly scrabbling for traction when driven aggressively. Electric power steering was arrow-straight on the highway but felt overboosted and rather uncommunicative for sporty driving. Combine the SHO's so-so steering with substantial body lean and we felt compelled to drive at no more than 7/10ths, where the big sedan seemed happiest.

The Taurus' substantial curb weight did pay off by delivering a pleasantly comfortable ride. The SHO is tuned to be firm but far from punishing, so it had no difficulty soaking up bad pavement and taking pot holes and expansion joints in stride. The quiet, refined ride and extensive sound deadening made the SHO one of the most silent vehicles we have ever tested.

Only mediocre fuel economy prevents us from declaring this sedan as one of the best road-tripping vehicles on the market. Around town, we struggled to see 16-17 mpg, while highway driving barely mustered 22 mpg, a far cry from the EPA's 25 mpg suggestion. We've seen better real-world numbers out of the more powerful V8-powered Charger R/T. Again, think of this as an EcoBoost.

Why you would buy it:
You cringe every time Conan O'Brien makes fun of his "vintage" Taurus SHO.

Why you wouldn't:
You think the SHO is a cut price alternative to German luxury. It ain't.

Leftlane's bottom line
Our Taurus SHO test car left us with mixed emotions. On one hand, we loved its refined ride, torque monster V6 and cossetting seats, as well as its overwhelming spaciousness. But the SHO never truly felt special to us; it seems like the old recipe of tarting up a middle American Taurus with a robust powertrain is still the mantra at Ford.

For performance fans, the redesigned Charger R/T basically makes the Taurus SHO irrelevant. But for those who want something a bit more incognito, this genuinely likable big sedan might be just the ticket. Just don't expect a world-class feel inside and out to go with that world-beating twin-turbo V6.


2011 Ford Taurus SHO base price, $37,995. As tested, $44,925.
Package 402A, $3,100; Adaptive cruise control, $1,195; Navigation, $1,850; Destination, $825.

Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.