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SLEEK TAURUS WAGONS GAINING ACCEPTANCE

A year after the Ford Taurus' introduction in 1986, a TV mini-series dramatized the life of the flinty company founder.

In one memorable scene, Henry Ford's long-suffering son, Edsel, tries to impress his old man with a car he's developed in secrecy at the Dearborn, Mich., plant. The car is radically new, a real whizbang effort whose most noticeable trait is its color - red as a bolshevik flag.Ford, known for his remark that you could get a Model T in any color you want as long as it's black, stares in stunned silence. Then he goes for the sledgehammer.

Imagine what he would do to the 1996 Taurus.

Unlike the company founder, current chairman Alex Trotman goaded the Taurus designers toward creative epiphanies.

"You're not scaring me yet," he reportedly observed about one clay model.

The oval-theme design that Trotman ultimately appproved is now visible in sufficient numbers to be recognizable as Ford's best-selling family sedan. But the Taurus - sculpted and sleek as a dolphin - still seems novel.

As sedan shock begins to wear off, Taurus wagons are surfacing on American highways and byways. And oddly, the super stylized design seems as appropriate for the wagon as for the sedan.

Somehow, the futuristic motif and more traditional wagon body style seem to meet somewhere closer to the center of public acceptance.

When you look at the Taurus wagon, you immediately recognize it as a family car, whereas the sedan seems more suited to motoring enthusiasts. While the wagon's body style may be more palatable to more people, the interior, like the sedan's, takes some getting used to.

Ford really took oval mania to extremes inside. The thin, plastic door handles are hard to find and don't really fit the hand very well. Controls for the ventilation and stereo are all contained in a tilted oval in the center of the dash. After a week of driving the car, I still had to hunt for the "on/off" button for the climate control and the button for turning on the cassette player.

Otherwise, the wagon should please Taurus loyalists with its gratifying comfort, smooth power and accessible cargo compartments. Prices jumped noticeably with the new model year, but Ford marketing execs say new and improved features for 1996 are worth the increase.

Available in three trim levels, G, GL and LX, Tauruses are base priced in a range of $17,995 to $22,000. The review car, a seven-passenger LX, started out at $22,000 and ended up fully loaded at $25,675.

Standard equipment on the LX includes double air bags, air conditioning, a coded-key anti-theft system, illuminated entry and automatic headlamps, power/ heated side mirrors, luggage rack, power locks/windows/antenna, 60/40 split folding rear seat and tilt steering column. The driver gets a power adjustable seat with lumbar support, and the backseat passengers get their own ventilation ducts and a lap-shoulder belt for the center passenger.

A rear-facing third seat is a $200 option. Other options included a $1,360 package with cruise control,leather-wrapped steering wheel, carpeted floor mats, keyless entry with panic button and anti-lock brakes. Premium AM/FM cassette stereo will cost you $315, aluminum wheels are $580 and rear window wipers and retractable cargo cover go for $255.

The standard engine on the LX is the 3-liter, 24-valve, double overhead cam V6 Duratec. The 200-horsepower engine, one of Ford's new modular power plants, is mated to a 4-speed automatic transmission that provides smooth, seamless shift points in routine driving but hesitates when you floor the accelerator at low speed.

Fuel economy for such a powerful engine is good at 19 city and 28 highway miles per gallon. Filling the 16-gallon tank over a year's time should cost you about $819, federal regulators estimate.

Engineers did a good job of tuning up the new suspension on the front-drive sedan and wagon. Improved anti-dive and squat configurations give the driver a nice feeling of control in all types of maneuvers. The long, 108.5-inch wheelbase creates a very stable, quiet ride. The owner of a new Taurus should notice less engine noise than in the 1995 model.

Looking at the roofline from the outside, I expected tight headroom in the back seat, but there was plenty. In fact, the interior seemed quite roomy. The only visual limitation for the driver comes from the smallish, oval rear window.

Access to the back cargo area is easy. The rear glass opens independently of the liftgate. Or you can open the entire liftgate for heavier loading chores.

Initial reaction to the new Taurus has not been as positive as Ford brass expected, but sales of the sedan, wagon and upcoming SHO version could keep Taurus atop the sales chart in the end. And that should make Henry Ford roll over in his grave a few more times.

*****

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

1996 Ford Taurus LX Wagon

Vehicle type: Front-drive, 7-passenger, midsize wagon.

Where built: Chicago, Atlanta.

Price: $22,000 base, $25,675 as tested.

Power: 3.0-liter, 200-hp, 24-valve, DOHC V6; 4-speed automatic transmission.

Suspension: Independent.

Brakes: Power discs, ABS.

Length x width x height: 199.6 x 73 x 57.6 inches.

Wheelbase x track (f/r): 108.5 x 61.6/61.8 inches.

Curb weight: 3,480 pounds.

Gas mileage: 19 city, 28 highway mpg; estimated annual fuel cost $819.

Standard equpment: Air bags, rear center-seat shoulder belt, illuminated entry/automatic headlamps, tinted glass, power/heated side mirrors, power locks/windows, air conditioner, rear window defroster, luggage rack, cargo net, power driver's seat, rear heat ducts, tachometer.

Options: Package includes cruise control, leather-wrapped steering wheel, floor mats, keyless entry, anti-theft system, anti-lock brakes ($1,360); power moonroof ($740); rear-facing third seat ($200); auto air conditioning ($175); chrome/aluminum wheels ($580); premium stereo/cassette player ($315); rear window wiper/washer ($255).