It's plain big, but hides it well with its sheer speed By Dan Neil September 10, 2009 At the moment, my brain aches. Actually, I think I might have strained something, pulled a mental muscle as I attempted to heft the idea of a $45,165, 4,368-pound, 365-hp, six-speed, twin-turbo, all-wheel-drive Ford Taurus. The former sad sack of the rental car universe has gotten a muscle car makeover. It's fast. It's well-built. It looks great. Uh-oh. My cerebellum just ripped its pants. Behold and tremble before the new Ford Taurus, which is just plain big in any direction you care to measure. Displaced from the mid-size sedan segment by its smaller sibling Fusion -- which now competes with Taurus' erstwhile rivals Honda Accord and Toyota Camry -- and expanding to fill the shoes of the Crown Victoria (consigned to fleet sales only), the new Ford Taurus looks as if it's been swimming in pituitary juices: 202.9 inches long, 76.2 inches wide and 60.7 inches tall on a 112.9-inch wheelbase, dwarfing its head-to-head competition, Toyota Avalon and Buick LaCrosse. The new Taurus is, in other words, bigger than a standard-wheelbase BMW 7-series, which requires all the steel of the Ruhr Valley to build. These dimensions are draped over relatively conventional sedan proportions. This leads to a wonderfully weird optical illusion: As you approach the Taurus it seems to get bigger and bigger and bigger until you feel like you're looking up at it, agog. It's like driving up to Devils Tower in Wyoming. Paging Roger Corman: Your 50-foot car is waiting for you at the valet stand. To the everlasting credit of Taurus exterior design manager Earl Lucas, the sedan actually disguises it gigantism quite well. This is a handsome car, with muscular, roped-over shoulders and flanks, tasteful blood vents along the doors, a short, kicked-up deck (under which there is a trunk in which you could cool three deceased wiseguys, maybe four) and powerfully stern visage. The styling is the best thing about this car, particularly if you look at it from the wrong end of the telescope. The rental-car special is the front-drive Taurus SE, powered by a 3.5-liter, 263-hp V6, starting at $25,995; the SEL model is $27,995 (add $2,000 for all-wheel drive). The value leader is the generously equipped Limited ($31,995, or $33,995 for AWD); and finally, what Ford insouciantly calls its "flagship," the SHO, at $37,995 and totally loaded at $45,165. This car -- with twin-turbo V6, standard AWD, 5.5-second 0-to-60-mph acceleration, and optional 20-inch wheels -- was the model I drove, and when I wasn't grappling with the laws of physics for my very survival, I rather liked it. About "SHO." The original SHO (it stands for "Super High Output," if you can believe it) was a low-volume performance variant Ford produced beginning in 1989. It was powered by a 250-hp Yamaha-built V6 backed up with a five-speed transmission, and it was a loony, torque-steering, cone-killing sweet-hot-mess of a car that handled like it had been drinking paint. But it was a lot of fun. The new SHO isn't fun, exactly, and it weighs a goodly half-ton more than the old SHO, but it's faster by far. Under the power-dome hood is Ford's new wonder-mill: a 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6 (with direct injection and twin turbos, one for each bank of cylinders) spooling out 365 hp and 350 pound-feet of silky, syrupy, sugary torque. All that meringue-y goodness gets pumped through a six-speed automatic transmission and out to the front wheels. Depending on the traction conditions and throttle position, the SHO will send torque to the rear axle via the AWD system -- but the system isn't like Audi's performance-based AWD. The SHO is essentially a front-wheel-drive car, which means that when you romp the throttle you better be lined up straight because this car will torque-steer like a two-engine plane with one engine on fire. The SHO has gear-selector paddles on the steering wheel, and for those in a mood to cavort, these come in really handy. In the standard "D" for Drive mode, the car is pretty hard to rouse. On the upside, the SHO offers excellent fuel economy of 25 mpg on the highway, the same as the unboosted 3.5-liter car. The chassis guys have done their part. In big, lurid curves, the SHO corners flat and level -- no ugly weight transfer, no door-dragging body roll. The electric power-assist steering is calibrated to be taut and heavy -- too heavy for some tastes, I'm sure. The car's handling is characterized by one word: understeer. Three words? Lots of it. My test car was equipped with the 20-inch, all-season Michelins, and they didn't offer nearly enough front grip to pivot this 2.2-ton dreadnought. The Ford guys say the Track package tires provide a lot more grip. Here's hoping they come coated with Elmer's glue. Driven at saner speeds, the Taurus SHO feels tremendous. Heavy and stiff and durable, like a new catcher's mitt. The interior is quiet -- maybe, as they say in Westerns, too quiet. I would have liked a little more snarl inside the cabin. The SHO's interior aesthetics -- cross-hatched alloy; suede-leather inserts; black console fascia; thick, soft-touch polyurethane -- reads as sporty, tough and cool-looking. I'm not so crazy about the interior in the lower trim level cars. Into this big boat Ford has thrown the kitchen sink and, indeed, every other porcelain fixture. Among the many standard and optional tech features: adaptive cruise control; blind-spot detection with "cross-traffic alert" (helping drivers pull out of spaces with limited rear visibility); multi-contour sport seats; voice-activated nav with Ford's Sync travel service; Sony surround-sound stereo; automatic high beams; rain-sensing wipers; power sunshade. Thus do you build a $45,165 Taurus. So. Taurus? LaCrosse? Avalon? It depends on what you regard as a reward for a life well lived. Do you want more room? More luxury? Or do you want the security of an Asian import? Personally, I like the idea of a car as big as a house that goes as fast as a Maserati. So give me the SHO.