Ford is making a good (if not particularly bold) move in resurrecting a fabled brand, Taurus, as the new name for the Five Hundred, a respectable sedan in need of a higher profile. But the fact that Ford ever scrapped Taurus in the first place is a stark reminder of Detroit's bad habit of name dropping.
The last time Taurus was the nation's top-selling car (1996), domestic models accounted for six of the top 10 sellers. Five are gone: Ford's Taurus and Escort; GM's Cavalier, Lumina and Grand Am. The sixth, GM's Saturn, has morphed into a series of products under that division.
And what about the four imports from '96-Toyota's Camry and Corolla and Honda's Accord and Civic? They were four of the five top-selling cars in 2006.
The dearly departed domestic models share a theme: Ford and GM milked them for sales but didn't reinvest in the products. The cars sank into auto purgatory, aka rentals and fleet sales, before disappearing altogether.
Such is the typical lifecycle of a Detroit car. Some models endure; Ford's Mustang has been around since 1964. Yet too often, one of the Big Three launches a model with grand ambitions but fails to support it over time; sales fall, the name loses luster. The automaker responds with an all-new product sporting a new name (or one resurrected from decades back). In so doing, the marketer throws away the equity of the outgoing model name and spends millions establishing a new identity.
Japan also ditches losers: Toyota replaced frumpy Echo with Yaris. But Toyota continually reinvests in Camry so its flagship is always fresh.
Ford replaced Taurus with three models-Five Hundred and Fusion sedans, the Freestyle crossover-but kept Taurus for fleets till late last year. Of those four, the top-selling model in '06 was ... Taurus.
Now Five Hundred and Freestyle become Taurus and Taurus X, respectively; sibling Montego will reclaim the Sable label. Better late than never. But even better if Detroit could learn to invest money in product and marketing that would keep its best car names in the game year after year.