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'00 Taurus -- plain Jane but best yet

In the '80s, the ubiquitous Ford Taurus looked like a jellybean on wheels. In the '90s it embraced the embryonic concept of the egg with ovals everywhere, inside and out. In the new millennium it has moved away from beans and ovals to . . .

Well, it's hard to pin down the styling theme of the 2000 Ford Taurus. Like its competitors, which have long embraced a kind of cloned oneness, the new Taurus now looks pretty much like all the Accords, Camrys and other midsize sedans in the parking lot.Best way to find your Taurus in a crowd is to punch the "panic" button on the keyless remote. The car that begins frantically honking is yours.

Which is how I identified this week's "tropic green" Taurus SE test car in our parking lot, although the Michigan factory plates would have given it away eventually.

If all this talk about generic styling has made you think I don't like the look of the new double-ought Taurus, think again. While I was somewhat taken by the jellybean look back in the mid-'80s when Taurus debuted, the oval business left me cold, as it apparently did many others.

Once the hottest ticket in town, Ford had been depending even more heavily than before on low-profit fleet sales to keep the numbers respectable.

No, I find the new Taurus to be better looking in every way than the previous model, even though it is now much less distinctive, a trait that is just as bad as good. I mean Nehru jackets were distinctive and so were platform shoes, but I wouldn't have worn either in public.

If there is a theme for the new Taurus, which Ford hopes will reclaim its status as America's favorite family sedan, it is safety. Sure, Detroit always moaned that "safety doesn't sell" whenever the federal regulators tried to force some new technology down their throats, but with Volvo and Mercedes-Benz and others making conquest sales on the issue of keeping you alive and unbent in a crash, Ford seems to have changed its mind.

The 1999 model, whatever its styling problems, was already among the safest cars you could buy, being the only mid-size sedan under $20,000 to garner Uncle Sam's five-star crash rating for both driver and front seat passenger.

And the 2000 Taurus brings even more safety goodies to the party, the most discussed innovations being the inside trunk release and the adjustable pedal controls.

The trunk release is now standard equipment on all Ford, Mercury and Lincoln cars sold in North America. It consists of a cable attached to a T-shaped handle made of phosphorescent material that makes it glow in the dark. The idea is that if kids or victims of carjackings were to find themselves trapped in the trunk, they could just pull the release and pop the trunk lid.

Given past tragedies of this sort, this device is a great idea and should work even if the trapped kids are too young to read. Images printed on the handle show how pulling it opens the trunk.

"We wanted to make this trunk release system easy to use and as intuitive as possible, for adults as well as children," said Ford Vice President Ken Kohrs. "We've even worked with youngsters and a child development expert to best understand how children commonly react and respond to different conditions."

That research indicated that even very young children are inclined to pull on objects, rather than push, and that's why the handle will work when it's pulled in a variety of directions. I thought about testing it myself, but I guess I've seen too many "B" movies. The idea of crawling into a car trunk and slamming the lid on myself just wouldn't compute, safety handle or no.

The other major innovation in my Taurus tester -- this one a $120 option rather than standard equipment -- was an electronic control that moved the brake and accelerator pedals forward and back. There's also a manual version of the same thing.

The idea here is that shortish people must sit too close to the steering wheel to reach the pedals, which places them in harm's way in the event of an accident and the air bag hits them instead of cushions them. Moving the pedals closer allows them to sit farther back from the wheel.

Like the trunk release, the pedal thing is another case of "you'll probably never need it, but . . . " But then that's the point of most safety devices. You hope you never need them, but if you should, it's nice they're there.

These two devices are the most obvious of the Tauruses' attention to safety, but they're really just part of what Ford calls its "Advanced Restraints System." The ARS consists of sensors that, in the event of a crash, tell an onboard computer a number of things, such as whether the driver and front passenger are wearing seat belts, the driver's seating position and the severity of the collision.

It then tightens the front belts, decides if the air bags should be inflated and how forcefully, thus reducing the chance that the bags will do more damage than the crash to the occupants. Side air bags are, for now, an option, but like most such safety devices will likely become standard within a few years.

Safety aside, the new Taurus is also a better driver than its predecessor, and it's quieter, rides smoother and has more interior and trunk room. As midsize cars go, back seaters should have no causes to complain, not even six-footers.

Interior ergonomics are good, with the stereo, climate control and various other buttons all clearly marked. You can drive a Taurus without ever having to resort to the owner's manual.

But the Taurus is not what you would call a driver's car. Handling is OK but nothing that would impress the BMW crowd, and same goes for the two 3.0-liter V6 engines, the 153-horsepower Vulcan and the 200-horse Duratec, although the latter is obviously going to move things along with considerably more zest.

As other marques have done, Ford decided to up the value quotient with the Taurus. The base price for an LX is $18,245, including delivery charges, which is pretty nice value for a sedan of this size and content.

My upscale SE tester was based at $20,895 but had several options that brought the bottom line to $23,185. The options included $390 for the side air bags, $895 for leather bucket seats, $120 for the adjustable pedals, $175 for traction control and $105 for a console that moves the shifter off the steering column and onto the console, a sportier setup.

The EPA says you can expect to get 17 mpg in city driving and 26 on the highway with the 200-horsepower Duratec V6.