New Taurus: A tall wagon, a mild SUV, or just the Freestyle renamed?

The 2008 Ford Taurus X is a tall wagon. No, it's a mild version of a sport utility vehicle.

Whatever the description, the Taurus X is an easy-to-drive, nice-riding vehicle with room for up to seven people and flexible cargo space.

Its government fuel economy ratings of 16 miles per gallon in city driving and 22 mpg on the highway put the Taurus X among the top third of SUVs for gas mileage. And this five-door model earned five out of five stars across the board in U.S. government crash tests.

But in many ways, the name is the big news for 2008.

The Taurus X was born after Ford Motor Co. officials renamed the slow-selling Ford Freestyle for 2008, while updating the Freestyle's V-6 engine and transmission, adding safety features and improving the ride and interior quiet.

The Taurus name was chosen because the Taurus was America's best-selling car for five straight years in the 1990s, and the name still has equity among many U.S. car buyers.

Officials add the "X'' to this wagon model's badge to differentiate it from the Taurus sedan, which is a renamed Ford Five Hundred car for 2008.

Too bad that officials didn't adjust pricing downward, too - given that affordable pricing was such a key to the old Taurus' success.

The 2008 Taurus X has a starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $27,365 for a two-wheel-drive model. This is $695 more than the starting retail price for a 2007 Freestyle.

A 2008 Taurus X with all-wheel-drive starts at $29,215.

In contrast, some other tall wagons are priced lower, including the 2008 Chrysler Pacifica that starts at $25,365.

Even Ford's stylish, five-passenger, 2008 Edge crossover SUV that uses the same V-6 and automatic transmission as the Taurus X has a lower starting retail price of $26,035.

The Taurus X isn't an ugly duckling. It's just plainer in its shape and appearance than some popular crossover SUVs, though the Taurus X roof rack and, on some models, a two-tone body with lower-body cladding provide SUV cues.

Still, ground clearance underneath is about the same as for a Taurus sedan, so the Taurus X doesn't look at all like an off-roader. And it's not designed for wilderness travel.

Even towing is limited to a meager 2,000 pounds.

These days, a 2008 Toyota Highlander, with towing prep package, can tow 5,000 pounds.

The test Taurus X was the top-of-the-line Limited with all-wheel-drive and a few options, so total price passed $36,000.

Seats were covered in attractive leather, and except for the back two - where I had to sit on short cushions with my knees approaching my chin - were comfortable.

Note that third-row legroom is 33.4 inches, which is more than the 29.2 inches in the back of Chrysler's Pacifica but less than the 34.9 inches in the third row of the Ford Explorer SUV.

Taurus X buyers choose whether to get six or seven seats, depending on whether they select a three-person, second-row bench seat or two individual second-row seats. But all Taurus X models have three rows of seats.

It's easy to get in and out of the Taurus X, because there's no big climb to get inside.

Yet passengers sit up some from the pavement, and behind the steering wheel, I saw over some small cars and through the windows of some SUVs. But I couldn't see around blockish vans or trucks.

There's only one engine - a 3.5-liter, dual overhead cam, Duratec V-6 that generates a commendable 263 horsepower and provides good performance in the Taurus X.

This compares with 270 horses from the 3.5-liter V-6 in the Highlander and 253 horsepower from the 4-liter V-6 in the Pacifica.

Torque in the Taurus X peaks at 249 foot-pounds at 4,500 rpm, and there was good, steady get up and go when I needed to merge onto highways and into city traffic.

Engine sounds were pleasant, except at high rpms, and smooth shifts in the six-speed conventional automatic make for an unfettered driving experience. Thank goodness the Freestyle's unimpressive continuously variable transmission has been dropped.

But on the test Taurus X, brakes weren't as strong and ready to activate as I'd prefer and they seemed to fade a bit after aggressive use.

Steering had a mainstream, comfortable feel, and most substantive road bumps caused only mild vibrations.

The test Taurus X Limited's interior was decently quiet and free of squeaks and rattles, allowing me to take full advantage of the optional Sirius satellite radio (complimentary service is provided for a few months).

The Taurus X also offers Microsoft's Sync communication system that allows drivers to talk to the system to change radio stations, select different music by speaking the artist's name and even instruct the system to read text messages off Blackberries.

All safety equipment is standard, including curtain air bags and front-seat side air bags. The old Freestyle didn't include standard, electronic stability control, but the Taurus X does.

Consumer Reports' predicted reliability for the 2008 Taurus X is "average."

A final note: Taurus had a twin, the Mercury Sable. For 2008, the Sable is back, too, but only as a sedan. There is no Sable X wagon.



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