Ford’s well-contoured ’96 Taurus had two fatal flaws


The third generation (1996–99) Ford Taurus was almost as much of a moonshot as the original 1986 model, which revolutionized the American family sedan. Ford’s decision to develop a third-gen Taurus had merit, as the best-selling car in America was getting stale—to the point that many wondered if fleet sales were the only reason the model could earn that “best seller” title. No matter, the appeal of the OG “jellybean” Taurus was gone by the early 1990s. The bull needed a clean-sheet redesign, perhaps one that took the Jelly Belly look to the next level.

How could the people behind “the car that saved Ford” not hit another home run, if the corporate mothership let them run wild for a second time?

And there it is. Oof. The new Taurus was unquestionably better that the second-gen one in every metric, except for the two that mattered: cost and public perception. The new bull scared more people off than it should have, and traditional fleet buyers scoffed at the inflated asking price; the fancy interior bits were just asking for damage by careless employees/renters. Perhaps all the trouble started with Ford picking the wrong source of inspiration.

The 1991 Ford Contour Concept was quite possibly one of the best examples of designers reaching too far: the volume of ovoids and avant-garde twists on automotive design traditions were simply too much for the Taurus’ more traditional demographic. Which is a shame, because the Contour Concept’s sculptural elements translated logically into the 1996 Ford Taurus.

Well, in theory. Terrifyingly radical styling aside, the 1996 Taurus offered something its predecessors lacked: serious attention to craftsmanship and refinement. The interior was far more luxurious, including triple-stitched leather seats (not mere leather seating surfaces), soft-touch plastic everywhere (including places nobody cared), and delightful details like the flip-out console inspired by Mazda’s ɛ̃fini MS-8 sedan. NVH engineering was heavily improved with a significantly stiffer chassis, and the sweet-revving, 3.0-liter, four-cam Duratec V-6 had 200 Camry-and-Accord-stomping horsepower.


Ford was so proud of its effort to regain the place atop the family-sedan hierarchy that it even invited a journalist into the process. And I bet you didn’t know Ford splashed the cash for a backlight grille emblem on the sistership Mercury Sable. But that emblem and hundreds of other cash-burning features were jettisoned in favor of currying fleet-manager favor and beefing up the bottom-line of stockholders’ equity. Ford’s rush to jettison costs came to head in the mid-year introduction of the Taurus G. (The GL trim levels clearly had too many letters to be profitable.)

Then there’s the matter of the third-generation Taurus SHO, complete with a V-8, an automatic transmission, and a fair bit of extra weight. Can you hear the comments section firing up for this one?

Motorweek got its hands on a third-gen SHO finished in the period-appropriate Rose Mist Clearcoat Metallic and the publication heaped genuine praise on it. The front end clearly smooths out the regular Taurus’ catfish face, the V-8 powertrain was disturbingly refined, the ZF variable-orifice power steering was marvelous, and the seating upgrades had purpose. But the high-performance model was a pleasure spiked with pain, as all the benefits that made the 1996 Taurus such a great family car muted the SHO’s once-famous dynamics and rowdy demeanor.

Most folks will hammer on the fact that the V-8 SHO was only available with an automatic. A fair point, but most V-6 SHOs were sold with a slushbox, ensuring it would be fun for the whole family. And the odds of Ford’s carryover MTX manual handling the V-8’s added torque were unlikely. In any case, the odds weren’t high enough to satisfy an OEM’s need for durability.

Speaking of durability, the Achilles’ heel of the third-gen Taurus SHO was that Yamaha-tweaked V-8 mill. Sure, it sounds nice, and, if you modify the exhaust, it might be the best-sounding production V-8 ever. But failing cam sprockets with an interference engine design did in so many of these SHOs. And that’s a shame, because there are so many reasons to love these overtly oval family sedans.

So let me make a hot take, and suggest the 1996 Taurus was a great car with forgivable flaws (V-8 cam sprockets aside). The styling was logical but too radical, a leap which inadvertently busted the door wide open for cost cutting. The cheaper it looked, the quicker the circle closed: By the introduction of the fourth generation in 2000, that unique oval rear window had disappeared, leather seats had become plasticky, and hard interior polymers had come back in full force. Taken all together, the changes made a compelling reason to spend extra for the Taurus’ Japanese competition. Ford’s cost-cut Taurus is one reason why the Accord and Camry are still for sale to this day.

ford taurus third gen

In some ways the third generation Taurus’ demise ushered in a new era of globally designed platforms with far more mundane proportioning and forgettable styling but exponentially more profit for their manufacturer. Why make a sedan for North America alone when you could leverage stuff made elsewhere?

By the end of the ’90s, North American automotive exceptionalism was limited to trucks and SUVs, making Ford’s bursting of this particular bubble a shame. But perhaps we knew that the Taurus’ well-contoured ovals were never gonna last when exposed to forces outside of Ford’s control.




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    As a guy who had three SHO manuals new, my boss got one of these 96’s loaded (not a SHO) when they came out. Big mistake. Bizarre dashboard. Lots of problems (my 95 had a lot of problems too). Drove fine but no big improvement. Was the ugly rose mist paint too…they ruined both the Taurus and the SHO. New Mercedes electric sedans look just like the 96 Taurus..

    The front of the 1996 Taurus reminded me of the face of a dead carp.
    My mother said it looked like the car was laughing at her.

    And you know, with a production number of only 58 Rose Mists available in ’96 ONLY, it is a rare vehicle. You don’t see them on the road these days. Most have rusted away, blown up and have ended in the crusher. HOWEVER, only a handful of us own them now. Happy to have a survivor that needs NOTHING and still has the OEM Z rated tires on her! Now registered as antique in my state, and insured through Hagerty! Car shows are a blast and the attention is off the charts………hmmmmmm

    That was my main beef with them, I thought the styling was ugly. And it was a pain to put in a better stereo when the Ford unit invariably died in three years. The price thing I didn’t really notice, mainly because I was no longer a new car buyer, I had decided I didn’t want to spend 30 years of a 80 year lifespan making car payments. And I still think they’re ugly to this day. But I’m not a avant garde personality either.

    In 96’ my Dad was looking to replace his 87’ Taurus, which had served us very well and was truly more reliable than our 91’ Previa, which came from the factory with a head gasket issue.

    We went to look at the 96’ Taurus. Although the styling was polarizing, I remember him being ok with the design. He really liked the Dodge Intrepid and the styling was still very fresh, even at three years old. He ordered one with the only option being ABS brakes. It was the car I learned to drive in, which was good as it was large and also didn’t have a lot of power with the base 3.3 V6

    Shortly after he rented Mercury Sable, he proclaimed after living with it for a few weeks. “I made the right decision in getting the Intrepid; it’s bigger and rides better.” The honeymoon was soon over as the Intrepid started to fall apart, going in every few months for warranty work, needing a complete transmission rebuild at two years old and a front steering rack at three years old.

    Every time the Intrepid would go in the shop, he would get a rental Taurus/Sable. I think that caused the “Catfish” Fords to grow on him. One day when the Intrepid was leaving on the hook of a tow truck for the third time in a year, as I was picking him up in my car he said “I should have bought a Taurus. It wasn’t much to look at, but at least I wouldn’t have to have my 16-year-old rescue me.”

    Nice story. However, the Vulcan was a 3 liter, there was never a 3.3 As a GEN 3 SHO owner going on 24 years now, I guess I know a think or two about them (((O:

    Styling was polarizing at best. The Oval thing just was over done. Not a case of reaching too far in the future just not a good move in the present.

    Quality bugs were issues here as was Rust.

    Ford got into a rounder funk in this era and it just didn’t work. The first aero Taurus worked so more roundness has to be better. Well no.

    Had one – a 2000, I think? – when I flirted with the notion of replacing my daily driver Plymouth Breeze. The Taurus was kinda goofy-looking, but a nice highway car, and anonymous enough that one could make time on the Interstate. Had a few frustrating features, like door lock mechanisms that would freeze up in winter, and the Breeze was much more fun to drive with its 5-speed stick. I’d have another Breeze/Stratus/Cirrus, but not another Taurus.

    Had a 99 breeze. 2.0 5spd. One great car. Had it 10 years 167,000 miles not one problem even still had original battery, brakes, and even two of the original tires that came on it new (Michelin). Great gas mileage too

    Personally, they shoulda styled it similar to what they did with the 98+ Vic. Similar to the previous gen but just updated a bit.

    Who needed another Crown Vic ??? Maybe the Marauder would be more your style? That came and went now didn’t it LOL

    I always thought Ford challenged their designers to come up with a car that had no straight lines, and this was the result.

    Absolutely! To this day, it stands out. Many as seen here in the comments STILL after over 23 years have not got over it!

    You couldn’t smoke and drink coffee at the same time because the cup holder folded forward and blocked the ashtray shut. Plus they got rid of the high mounted radio controls. Fail. Fail.

    I got a new Taurus wagon in 1987. After I put a good set of Continental tires and new Monroe shocks on the Ford was a great sports wagon. Years later my wife bought well used ’95 sedan. A bit later I got a ’98 sedan. We called them T1 and T2. All had the Vulcan V6. They provided fairly dependable cheap transport. Had to replace the rack on T2. T1 with studded snows was perhaps the best winter car ever. The winter of 2007 was brutal in Denver with thick rutted icepack.

    I had an 87 Taurus wagon with the Vulcan v6, then a 2000 sable wagon with the 24 valve v6 that I kept until 2013. Both great cars that I thought looked good. Agree that the oval was overdone on the 87. I remember that the brochure described it as ” a symphony of ovals”. I went from Taurus to fusions for daily driver duty.

    We had a 98 and I thought it was great. I liked the style and it was really fast I really like the station wagon and still look for a good one

    We had a ’98 wagon too, great car, my son got it as his first driver in 2012 and kept it until 2018 when he traded it for a Ford Flex. very low maint, mostly just oil/filter and tires & brakes


    A question then a comment:
    -Is the 1992 Taurus really the second genetation?
    I always thought of it more as a facelift…New body panels on same platform….like the second version of the Aero T-bird.

    I always thought this version’s downfall was the sloping trunk lid.
    Looks like it traded trunk space for style…A cardinal sin for a family or fleet car.
    How do their trunks compare in size?
    If Ford consciously headspace for style, I’d suggest that was the last time a mainline automaker traded style over substance in its primary model.

    Correct, history (i.e. wikipedia and Taurus forums) allowed the redesigned 1992 model to be the second generation. It is a pretty big departure, in terms of redesigned parts at least. And if 1992 gets this honor, might as well do it for the 2000 model!

    1986-1991 1G
    1992-1995 2G
    1996-1999 3G
    2000-2003 4G
    2004-2007 4.5G
    2008-2009 5G
    2010-2012 6G
    2013-2019 6.5G.

    I’ve owned a few and was a moderator on the Taurus Car Club of America for several years. Rebuilt a 3.0L Yamaha once I spun a bearing on my ’95 MTX. I do miss that car occasionally.

    Oh yeah, I forgot about the split into the 4.5G! I’m kinda surprised the 13-up model isn’t considered a 7th generation. It’s even more of a radical departure than 1G and 2G.

    Hello John. ’86 to 91′ is FIRST GEN, 92 to 95 SECOND GEN. 96 to 99 THIRD GEN. Gen 4 for the Taurus continued, but the true 4th GEN for the SHO was started in 2010 and ended in 2019. The Taurus will return again rumor has it ((O:

    Had a 95 SHO with a manual trans. Great car. A lot of fun to drive.

    Made the mistake of trading it in on a V8. Went from great seats, fun, quick, to a dog that drove like a living room sofa.

    I knew I made a mistake within a week. The transmission had issue, electrical gremlins. I got rid of it in 8 months.
    Went from one of the best cars I have owned to the worst.

    Too bad this was your experience Ross. The GEN 3 was clearly the best handling (EXCLUDE THE 1999 SHO). That is why it beat out the BMW 540i on the slalom course in handling!, and the 540 had lots more power too!! The GEN 3 was made in two sections, your GEN 2 was from FOUR, had more compliance. I was in an SHO club, and the guys that got to drive the GEN 3 cars could not believe how much better the handling was. ZL German made rack in pinion AND those computerized struts were also made in Germany. many don’t know about that fact.

    Bought a red 1998 SHO, new off the lot. I was certain the fatal flaw being mentioned was torque steer. And at 100K it started making expensive sounding noises. Traded it for beige (arg!) Toyota Camry which I drove 330K miles until a bonehead ran into it one fateful winter evening. With a manual, might not have traded it.

    The face on the ’96 was so meh. Not something you’d want to look at, yet so forgettable. (I’d forgotten it.) Same problem with the rear. It was an all around lousy piece of styling.

    Hey Stuart, your comment harks back to those days some 27 years ago. HOWEVER, I am enjoying my Gen 3 which is 26 years old now, and it is SO interesting the comments I get at the car shows. Many that know of it say they have not seen one in years, and the kids scratch their heads and take photos of the ICE LOL. Good times for this 70 year old guy (O: (24 years owned now, and the first owner of registration!)

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