DEARBORN, Mich. -- The wagon we´re steering over a wiggly track at Dearborn Proving Ground, vehicle test facility for Ford Motor Company, projects the two-box profile of a sport utility vehicle (SUV).
With an elevated stance our vehicle shows an elongated snout and a roof that´s long and flat, a pair of doors on each flank and rows of windows wrapping around the squared-off tail.
In the cabin there´s ample space for three rows of seats to haul as many as seven passengers.
And chairs inside will flip and fold to make room for lots of cargo.
Despite the boxy exterior styling and three rows of seats in the cabin, this particular vehicle is not just another tough-to-drive SUV erected on the chassis of a pickup truck.
Instead, it happens to be a mid-size crossover utility vehicle (CUV) which rides on the rigid platform of a sport-tuned sedan developed by Volvo in Sweden.
The CUV has a monocoque platform which unites chassis and body into one cohesive unit that remains extremely rigid when steered along a curve-lined course.
A torquey V6 engine mounts up front and directs all power to the front wheels which also steer -- or to all of the wheels through an optional electronically controlled all-wheel-drive (AWD) system.
As a result, the CUV seems as precisely mannered and easy to drive as a tightly-tuned European touring car.
Yet it comes together in America at Chicago Assembly Plant, the historic Ford factory where the famed Model T was once built.
The new five-door CUV bears a familiar nameplate out of Ford´s past issues, although the moniker acquires a new twist.
Ford labels it as Taurus X, with that ´X´ added to the badge to denote a crossover wagon, perhaps, or the optional AWD mode for sticky tire traction.
This is not the new Taurus sedan, by the way, which for 2008 also gains the Taurus name as a new and improved version of the former Five Hundred sedan.
Instead, it´s a new and improved version of the former Freestyle CUV (which tied closely in structure and equipment to the Five Hundred sedan) but also with a host of improvements, not the least of which is a larger and more powerful engine and the switch from a continuously variable transmission (CVT) to a six-speed electronic automatic.
The architecture for Taurus X originated with Volvo´s variable-size P2 platform that underpins mid-size Volvo sedans and wagons plus the XC90 CUV.
Ford adapted the P2 platform (while changing the name for the evolved structure to D3) for use in a number of vehicles for Ford, Mercury and Lincoln.
For Taurus X, the D3 architecture forges a stiff foundation for constructing the seven-passenger cabin and producing an agile, easy-to-drive CUV.
Taurus X has an impressively long wheelbase of 112.9 inches. The package stretches for 200.3 inches when measured from tip to tail, and it´s 74.9 inches wide with the roof rising 67.6 inches high from the pavement.
Body styling reveals a chiseled design with a sloping front hood, high beltline and big wheels and tires as emphasized by flared wheel arches.
The smoothly rounded nose contains step-up headlamps and a flat three-bar grille in flashy chrome that´s the new signature face for all Ford vehicles.
The shape of arching front fenders lapping around large wheels is new to Taurus X and enhances a muscular pose.
At the tail, new lamps stack on the corners as the low fascia houses twin chrome-tipped exhaust pipes.
Doors run deep to make cabin entry and exit easy and seats are elevated so all riders sit erect and in a high-hiked position for comfort and keen visibility. While the beltline is high, so too is the wrap of windows around the cabin so a driver in Taurus X has good sight lines and scant blind spots.
Layout of the cabin in Taurus X indicates a pair of bucket seats up front divided by a multi-function console and followed by either a bench for three or two captain´s chairs, then a back bench for two.
Second-row seats fold on the seatback and tumble forward via a new one-tap mechanism to make access easy to the third bench.
The third-row bench, split into two separate seats, folds and forms a flat floor for the cargo bay, which has 47 cubic feet of room with rear seats down or 85.5 cubic feet with second-row and third-row seats folded.
Equipment promoting active safety on Taurus X includes a fast rack and pinion steering mechanism and four-wheel disc brakes tied to an anti-lock brake system (ABS) and traction control system (TCS), with Ford´s AdvanceTrac electronic stability control device.
Taurus X packs a new fuel-efficient dual-cam 3.5-liter V6 below the hood and it links to a six-speed electronic automatic transaxle with standard front-wheel-drive (FWD) or the optional AWD traction.
That new V6 delivers 263 hp at 6250 rpm with the torque rising to 249 lb-ft at 4500 rpm.
EPA estimates for the new engine tally to 16 mpg city and 24 mpg highway for Taurus X FWD and 15/22 mpg city/highway for the AWD version.
The AWD device is a sophisticated electronically-controlled system developed by Haldex, a Swedish pioneer in AWD mechanisms. It´s always engaged and operates in FWD mode unless on-board wheel sensors detect slippage of the front wheels. The smart device then can quickly divert some of the engine´s power to turn the rear wheels and keep tires sticking on pavement, wet or dry.
Taurus X trims to a well-equipped SEL edition, the upgraded Eddie Bauer branded series and top-tier Limited.
Taurus SEL stocks air conditioning, a key fob and a keypad keyless entry system, power windows, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, six-way power for the driver seat, reclining 40/40-split second-row seats, plus an audio kit with AM-FM, a CD player and an audio input jack for MP3 players, chrome-tipped exhaust pipes, front foglamps, a roof rack and 17-inch aluminum wheels with P215/65Rx17 tires.
The Eddie Bauer series wears two-tone body paint and 18-inch aluminum wheels.
MSRP for the CUV begins at $26,615 for Taurus X SEL FWD base trim or $28,465 for the SEL AWD.