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Taurus X provides a ride back in time

by:  JIM CLARK, The 2008 Taurus X is thoroughly modern, but its soft ride may put drivers in mind of the big luxury cars Ford made in the 1960s and ’70s.

The 2008 Taurus X was a welcome sight when it arrived for testing at the height of the spring break storms.

With its optional full-time all-wheel drive and smooth-shifting six-speed automatic transmission, the Taurus X made driving through the snow, hail and pounding rain a breeze. The ride height also provided commanding views of the road ahead, easing progress past befuddled other drivers.

Heating, wiper and other controls were easy to reach and use. And when traffic came to a complete stop, the optional top-of-the-line sound system eased the wait.

All of which helps explain why Consumer Reports recommended the Taurus X in its 2008 Best and Worst Cars guide.

But after only a few minutes on the road, I began to feel there was something old-fashioned about the Taurus X. The soft, quiet ride and slightly vague steering filled me with nostalgia. Although classified as a midsize crossover SUV, it felt like a much larger vehicle.

Then it hit me. Despite its angular styling and wealth of high-tech features, the Taurus X is the current version of the Big Ford - the top-of-the-line, full-size luxury cars that Ford Motor Co. used to make in the 1960s and 1970s.

Many of us can remember driving or being hauled around town in the pillowlike comfort of Galaxies and LTDs. Those uniquely American cars are mostly gone now, victims of changing tastes and rising gas costs.

But, intentionally or not, Ford has instilled much of their spirit in the Taurus X. Handling is much better than the earlier cars, especially the well-modulated stopping ability of the four-wheel disc brakes. The suspension still reduces ruts and potholes to gentle rocking motions - in contrast to the more defined road feel found in such sports-oriented competitors as the Cadillac SRX and Acura RDX.

Ford also has a history of making four- and all-wheel-drive vehicles that find favor with Oregonians. They include the original small Bronco (1966-77), which now has become a collector's item; the larger second-generation Bronco (1978-96), which still is popular with hunters; and the multiple-generation Explorers (1991-today), which seem to dominate shopping center parking lots.

Even following the evolution of these vehicles may not prepare you for the refinement of the Taurus X. As a crossover, it is based on a car platform, not a truck chassis.

In this case, the platform is shared with the Ford Taurus sedan and Volvo XC90 crossover. But the look is unique and striking, more like a muscular station wagon than a traditionally lumpy SUV.

Although the Taurus X debuted in 2005 as the Freestyle, it was upgraded when renamed to increase sales this year. Improvements include the new and only available engine, a 3.5L V-6 that pumps out more than ample power.

Exterior changes include bolder taillights and the bright silver grille now appearing on all Ford models. The interior remains clean and functional, surprising several passengers with its European flavor.

The Taurus X also offers a third row of seats that easily can be reached by folding the second row forward. The test model included a console with cup holders between the second row of seats, reducing passenger capacity from seven to six. Both rows also fold flat, creating more than enough room to haul all the spring-cleaning throwaways to the recycling center.

All models come with more cup holders, coin trays, map holders and storage compartments than anyone could ever use. Options on the fully loaded model included attractive 18-inch aluminum wheels, leather seats (heated in the front), an easy-to-use entertainment/navigation system, a DVD player for backseat passengers and a handy power tailgate.

Like all trucks and SUVs, rear visibility in the Taurus X is limited. Large side mirrors help with lane changes and parallel parking. Electronic sensors trigger audible tones when backing toward objects, beeping faster as the gap closes to avoid collisions. No rear-facing camera is available.

After a week of driving - including a trouble-free run through hail in the Southwest Hills - complaints were few. Though comfortable, the front seats could use more lateral support during hard cornering.

The radio automatically lowered its volume a little too much when the Taurus X came to a stop. And the tinted back windows reduced rear visibility more than necessary (although they enhanced the test car's black-on-black theme).

Fuel economy for the Taurus X is a combined 18 miles per gallon, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. That's in line with such competitors as the GMC Acadia, Honda Pilot and Saturn Outlook, and better than a few cars, according to statistics compiled by Consumer Reports.

Prices for the Taurus X start at just over $27,000 for the base two-wheel-drive version and just under $30,000 for the entry-level AWD one. Our test model topped out at slightly more than $38,000, roughly the same as similarly equipped versions of its midsize SUV competitors.

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2008 Taurus X

Manufacturer: Ford Motor Co.

Class: Midsize crossover SUV

Layout: Front engine, front-wheel drive/all-wheel drive

Style: Five-door

Engine: 3.5L Duratec V-6, rated at 236 horsepower and 249 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 6-speed 6F automatic

Mileage: EPA estimated 15 city and 22 highway

Price: Approximately $27,000 to $38,000, depending on options