Cruising past shiny, new rides at the car show

February 17, 2007|By ROB KASPER

I was among the throngs of door slammers who last weekend streamed through the 2007 Motor Trend International Auto Show at the Baltimore Convention Center.

I heard rumors that there were some exquisite $100,000 machines there, Maseratis, Lamborghinis, even Ferraris. I am not sure, because I kept my head down when I got near anything luxurious. My interests were less lofty. I was looking for the recently rechristened Ford Taurus, the basic family car.

For decades, the Ford Taurus ruled the American sedan scene. Its jellybean shape and bright colors caught the nation's fancy. In 1992, it passed the Honda Accord as North America's best-selling vehicle, a run that lasted six years.

One afternoon in 1993, I test-drove a Taurus GL station wagon at a local Ford dealer, and that night I was back in the dealer's office, filling out paperwork.

You either love or hate a Taurus. This week, for example, when I looked up my '93 wagon on the Web site, I found two contrasting consumer reviews. One driver, who bought a used Taurus wagon, called the purchase "the best $2,600 I have ever spent." Another reviewer said his Taurus wagon was "the worst car I ever owned by far."

I, too, have experienced a range of emotions as a Taurus owner. Early on, many of its components - a water pump, part of the transmission - were replaced at no cost while the car was still under warranty. Later, the air conditioner went up, which set me back $600, and a few years ago, I slapped in a rebuilt alternator for about $150. Yet overall, the car has been a dependable hauler. Stylish, it isn't. But it has gotten the kids to school and the trash to the dump.

Now our Taurus is in its declining years. Its trade-in value, according to one table I consulted, is $256. A Baltimore City police officer pulled it over on Reisterstown Road the other day because one of the taillights was not working. The officer gave the driver, my wife, a Safety Equipment Repair Order.

What the officer did not know was that he had simply caught the Taurus on one of its "bad taillight days." Sure enough, when I took the car into a service station to get the light fixed, the Taurus was having one of its "good taillight days." The brake lights and the turn signals were on their best behavior. The mechanic could find nothing wrong.

Last fall, when I read that Ford was closing down its Taurus production, I felt as though a member of the family, a reliable old uncle, had passed away.

That decision has been reversed. The Taurus has been reborn, sorta. Ford is bestowing the Taurus name on an already existing car, the Ford Five Hundred. One way Ford and other American car companies are trying to recapture their glory years is to dust off trusted old names, like Taurus, or Chevrolet's Impala, or Chrysler's Hemi engine, and reassign them to new vehicles. (Speaking of names, I got one wrong last Saturday; it is Sherwin-Williams paint, not Sherman-Williams.)

This appeal to the good old days is what drew me to the Taurus at the auto show. When I saw the dark four-door sedan on the convention center floor, my first thought was "this looks too good to be a Taurus." This was a fancied-up version, with supple leather seats, not the battered beige cloth of our old wagon. The roomy back seat looked like a lair for a mogul closing a deal via cell phone.

On one hand, it was quite a bit of car for $25,000 to $30,000, but on the other, the price was more than double what I sprang for back in 1993.

After you have spent the day at an auto show, you notice the cars on the street. As I walked along Pratt Street, I examined the Hondas, Toyotas, Fords, Acuras, BMWs, Chryslers and Infinitis that edged east in traffic. Many were covered with road salt. None of them looked as attractive as the gleaming metal beauties on the convention center floor. Winter can be rough on automotive fantasies.

This week, when the snow fell and ice followed, I was glad I didn't have a new car. Driving snowy streets is risky, and I would worry about damaging my car if I were driving a shiny new ride.

That was not a concern when I scraped off the snow and fired up the Taurus. It complained a bit, a low moan came from somewhere under its hood. But it answered the call to duty, chugging through the unplowed alley and lumbering along the partially plowed streets. Drivers of newer vehicles, eyeing the condition of the Taurus, figured out that they had more to lose in a collision than I did and gave me right of way.

Some day I may get a new Taurus, but on snow days, I am content to be plugging along in an old one.

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