HOW FORD PLANS TO KEEP TAURUS ON TOP CARMAKER GAMBLES WITH RADICAL RESTYLING

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This is not your father's Taurus.

Ford Motor Co. unveiled a striking redesign of its popular Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable at last week's North American International Auto Show in Detroit. The '96 models go on sale in September.

The new Taurus features an elliptical design carried through in headlamps, the back window, rear taillights, door handles and even the instrument panel.

The look may be new, but Ford isn't conceding Taurus' status as the top-selling car in the U.S., a title it's held the past three years.

"We fully expect Taurus to be the best-selling car again," said Steve Lyons, Ford division's general marketing manager.

To stay on top, Ford needs to build upfront enthusiasm for the radical restyling while finding a way to continue selling 1995 models through the summer. It wouldn't be unusual for the automaker to resort to incentives such as cut-rate leases. Ford used a two-year $237-a-month lease at the end of 1994, compared with about $260 per month normally, to ensure Taurus would beat out Honda Accord for the sales title.

Incentives won't be needed for now, because the end-of-the-year sale left dealer inventories relatively bare. Ford sold 397,037 Tauruses in 1994, topping the Accord by 8%, or 29,422 units.

The first Taurus, a 1986 model, popularized the aerodynamic, so-called "jellybean" look that now dominates car styling. Ford has sold more than 3 million Tauruses since then, and the car did more than any other product to boost the company's image and fortune.

But because the car's shape changed so little in nine years, Ford's reputation for design leadership has been eclipsed by Chrysler Corp. and importers such as Nissan Motor Corp. USA.

Mr. Lyons said the idea that the Taurus is again presenting a breakthrough design may play an important part in advertising being developed by J. Walter Thompson USA, Detroit.

Ford showed focus groups the new styling and an alternative that was more recognizably a Taurus.

"Most people thought [the more radical redesign] was a near-luxury car, something above Taurus," Mr. Lyons said.

Ford and Lincoln-Mercury spent a combined $100 million to introduce the original Taurus/Sable combine, a figure likely to be at least matched this time around. Young & Rubicam is working on the Sable effort.

Aside from the Taurus/Sable introductions, much of the buzz at the auto show was about trucks, minivans and sport-utility vehicles.

Chrysler took the wraps off its redesigned Plymouth Voyager, Dodge Caravan and Chrysler Town and Country minivans, the company's crown jewels. Going on sale in April at a base price of about $19,000, the vehicles offer more interior room and new features such as an optional sliding door on the driver's side.

General Motors Corp.'s Chevrolet and GMC Truck units displayed their new Tahoe and Yukon full-size sport utilities. They go on sale this spring, starting at about $27,000.

Land Rover North America unveiled a new Range Rover 4.0 SE, the vehicle's first total redesign in 25 years. Introductory advertising from Grace & Rothschild, New York, will begin in mid-February.

Toyota Motor Sales USA showed an extended-cab version of its T100 pickup truck. The company hopes that will enable it to sell about 30,000 pickups this year, about double 1994's totals.

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