Americans travelling in Europe for the first time often have a moment of culture shock when they hail a taxi and a Mercedes E-class or BMW 5-series pulls up to the curb. In America, these cars have been icons of intelligence and success for more than a generation. In their homeland they are more likely to be diesel powered taxis designed for durability and low operating cost than ultimate driving machines bred for the autobahn.
In the late 80's Ford tried to beat the Germans at their own game. In 1986 they had bet the company on the groundbreaking Taurus. If you weren't there, it is almost impossible to imagine the impact this car had on the American auto industry. Its styling was as cutting edge as any European sedan of the time and it had much more of a European feel than any American sedan made before. It couldn't compete against the European sedans sold here. But Ford wondered if the Germans could remake a taxi into a world class sport sedan, could they do it with a car that had won the hearts of conservative middle America?
That was the challenge that faced the Taurus SHO throughout its eleven year production run. It was by any objective standard a worthy competitor to the midsize entries from BMW and Mercedes, one with a distinctive American accent. But in the end not enough buyers could make the mental leap that this Taurus was different than the one their parents had traded in their Fairmont or Caprice Classic for.
Overview and Driving Impressions:
There were three generations of the SHO. The first (1989-1991) was the original '86 "Jellybean" Taurus platform with the SHO V-6 and suspension component upgrades. The final version (1996-1999) used the all-new "Oval" Taurus platform and carried an equally new V-8. But I don't recommend either. The first generation SHO was a great engine mated to a chassis that wasn't intended for it, while the third became so refined it lost much of the distinctive personality in the earlier versions.
The sweet spot was the 1992-1995 second generation cars. In 1992 all Taurii were redesigned and the SHO received distinctive front and rear styling that gave it a crisper, stronger look than the first edition. Under the skin several weaknesses and customer complaints had been addressed, and the entire platform was strengthened, giving the SHO handling abilities that came closer to matching the Germans than any American sedan that came before. And in 1993 it finally got the automatic transmission the pundits said it needed to win over American buyers.
The heart of the SHO was its engine. Yamaha was originally hired to design a new cylinder head for the 3.0 liter Ford V-6. The head they came up with produced too much power for the Ford block to live with, so Ford contracted them to come up with an entire powerplant. Their answer was a dual overhead cam, 24 valve V-6 that only shared a three liter displacement with the engine in lesser Taurus models. The engine was a marvel. With 220 horsepower available the SHO was the most powerful engine in its class by a slim marging. But it weighed 400 pounds less than the Merc and 500 pounds less than the BMW. This made the Taurus SHO the quickest car in its class.
More important than the numbers was how different the three cars felt in action. The Mercedes, from its engine to how the ashtray door closed with a solid but velvet smooth action, felt literally like a bank vault on wheels. The BMW reeked of refinement by drivers, extremely capable yet never feeling like it would lose its composure. Both were outstanding cars with clear personalities. But neither, in my book, compared to the shot-of-tequila and a big slap on the back feeling of the SHO. When you got into the gas in the Ford the engine growled, the steering wheel tugged slightly in your hands, then the growl became a roar as the tachometer needle swung quickly towards 7,000 rpm. It wasn't crude, in capable hands the SHO was a remarkably composed car to drive at speed with little body roll and crisp responses. The SHO was simply spicier and more engaging than the Germans.
One of the big reasons to choose a second generation car over a first is the shifter mechanism for the five speed transaxle. First gen SHO's used a cable actuated shifter that had all the feel of stirring a pot of warm molasses. Starting in '92 all five speed SHO's ditched the spaghetti wires for solid linkage that greatly improved the feel. But it was still notably less precise than the action on the rear wheel drive BMW with its superb five speed. All front wheel drive cars share this handicap compared to a good rear wheel drive setup. Torque steer, another bane of powerful front wheel drive cars, could tug the wheel in your hands but you really had to be hamfisted with the throttle to have it effect your driving.
As I mentioned earlier, in 1993 the SHO got the slushbox (automatic) the critics said the market wanted. The thinking was, as only a relative few BMW's came to America with manual gearboxes and Mercedes didn't offer them on any model in the E-class, to compete the SHO needed an automatic even if the purists had a fit over it. The critics were half right. The automatic didn't make the SHO a bestseller but it did improve the feel of driving the car. This is just my personal preference, but in a midsized or larger sedan I prefer an automatic if it is done right. Hustling a small light sports car up a road and snapping through shifts is one of life's greater joys, but a 3,000-pound sedan is more enjoyable when the strategy is smoothness and forethought. And a good automatic is better partnered to this style of driving.
In the SHO it was no contest in my book. The automatic was a better automatic than the manual was manual. Huh? While the manual was improved in '92, it still had an imprecision that hindered finding a gear instinctively. The automatic was better mated to the SHO, with crisp, smooth upshifts that matched the sporting personality of the car, and the effect of torque steer was greatly reduced compared to the manual. Unless you are the kind of enthusiast who can't have any sports car with an automatic, the auto is a better way to go.
If the Taurus was a bargain BMW, as reviewers and fans called it, it hid the trimmed corners well. I don't know how Ford made a dime on them. I prepped new cars and did trim/NVH repairs at a large Ford dealer in 92-94 and quickly noticed that a loaded out Taurus LX was only a couple of thousand dollars less than a SHO. Fully equipped, with leather, excellent power sport seats, full power accessories, power glass moonroof, premium (JBL) sound, CD and the automatic the sticker came in at less than $25,000. The E-320 and 530i weighed in at almost twice that-fifty large-in the same trim. It's the greatest price disparity between similar cars that I've ever seen.
Reliability And Maintenance:
Against all bets when it was in production, the second generation SHO has proven itself a remarkably durable car. Only three big dollar problem areas have been uncovered on the second generation cars. SHO's driven in the snowbelt during winter have been known to develop corrosion in the engine subframe. It's not a fatal problem, the subframe can be replaced for a few hundred dollars (including labor.) The front brakes are another consistent source of trouble. The second generation cars were slightly better but Ford simply put rotors on the car that were too small to stand up to the punishment of a high performance sports sedan. The rotors get too hot and warp when used hard, and like most cars made in the last decade Ford only included enough metal on the them to have them machined and trued once. (Maybe, if you were lucky and caught it soon enough.) Finally, for all the initial concern about funneling 200 lb/ft of torque through a front wheel drive transaxle, the only weak link has been the clutch in the manual transmission models.
The brake and clutch problems can be cured with the right application of high performance parts, and the engine subframe is a job that should be good for several years. All in all, not a bad list of "major" problem areas for a high performance car. (And by contrast, the second generation base Taurus models have earned a lemon reputation for blowing head gaskets in their 3.8 liter engines and eating their AXOD-E transaxles The SHO models shared no engine parts with the base models and used specially modified transmissions that have proven very durable. Can anyone think of another high performance engine/transmission that is more reliable than the base model?)
One problem area that isn't unique to the SHO but needs to be mentioned is the importance of keeping the thermostat and catalytic converters in good condition. If the thermostat sticks open the engine won't overheat, but something just as bad can happen. All fuel injected engines use the engine temperature as one of the major factors to determine the air/fuel mixture. If the engine is running too cold, as it will when the thermostat is stuck open, the mixture will be too rich. But instead of this unburned fuel vapor pouring out the tailpipe and creating smog, it is ignited and burned in the cat. Which gets much hotter than it was designed to be and begins to break apart inside. It's not a problem until you lift off the gas from a higher engine speed, like when getting off the freeway. When you do this the airflow through the engine reverses momentarily and because the cats on the SHO are mounted close to the engine if there is any debris in the cat it can be sucked back into the engine. It is just a destructive as pouring metal shavings in the intake.
All four areas should be checked out before buying a SHO. The Yamaha engine has proven to be as tough as granite. Aside from possible valve guide wear in hard-driven cars there haven't been any major problems with the engine at all. (Look for a little blue smoke at a cold startup, hard starting, or oil consumption greater than a quart every 700 miles.) Like most of their motorcycle engines, the SHO does not have hydraulic valve adjustors so the clearance has to be set by a mechanic. But unlike a bike it's not a regular occurrence. Ford specifies a major service between 60,000 and 100,000 miles that includes a valve adjustment and replacing the engine timing belt, spark plug wires and control arm bushings. It is a major bill, but nothing compared to the expense of failure if something like the timing belt lets go, and this service on the SHO will cost a fraction of the same service expenses on a BMW or Mercedes as the miles reach this territory. (One note: The SHO, like any vehicle with an all-aluminium engine, should have the coolant system flushed and replaced every year.)
Other problems fall into the nitpick category. In looking through the newsgroup boards, I was pleasantly surprised to see that most of the problems owners are reporting after five years are the same ones I saw when the cars were still under warranty, most involving interior trim parts. Is my relief confusing? While the lumbar support leaking and the wiper control on the turn signal stalk failing too soon is evidence that there were some areas where Ford missed the mark in design and manufacture, after five to seven years I expected to see new problems emerging as the cars piled up the miles and that hasn't been the case. The good news is, the owner groups have developed inexpensive solutions for all the interior problems if you have a little mechanical ability-with one exception. If you notice the driver seat rocks when you sit down or move the only fix is replacing the power mechanism, a bracket with the adjustor motors and trays that move the seat. It's not a safety hazard-the seat is still firmly attached to the floor. But if you want to repair it plan on laying out about $300 for a new power mechanism.
Pricing and Owner Support:
The discovery of the enthusiast and aftermarket support on the web for the SHO has been another pleasant surprise. There are regional SHO owner clubs across America and a strong aftermarket for replacement and high performance parts. (Note to gearheads: The level of aftermarket support for the V-6 SHO is as good as you'll find for a Camaro or Mustang. At extremely affordable prices for this class, too.) Along with continued parts support from Ford, the SHO is one of the rare limited edition models that hasn't become an orphan in retirement.
But it does remain one of the best values in the entire automotive market. The Kelly Blue Book quotes a $10,200 retail price for a '95 SHO automatic with 75,000 miles in my area. Like when it was new that is almost exactly half the Blue Book for a 530i or E-320. But in my area that would buy you an immaculate car. In the last year I've seen close to a dozen very clean 92-95 SHO's with prices in the $7,000 range. And because most SHO buyers weren't testosterone poisoned young adults (read Camaro/Mustang market) the chances of finding a well maintained and cared for car are very good.
A SHO has been on my list of cars to have since I worked on them at Earnhardt Ford. It's a terrific sports sedan at an econobox price that has held up remarkably well, and the Mad Scientist in me still gets an evil grin when I think about the things I wanted to do with it. (And that was when I only imagine stripping all the power amenities and losing a quick 60-70 pounds just on the interior! Now I can get superchargers that make up to 400 horsepower?
Bottom line: As an entertaining and unique sport sedan to be appreciated for what Ford created, or as the platform for a midlife crisis, the SHO is impossible to beat. It was one of the most easily overlooked cars when it was new, and today it has become a hidden treasure for enthusiasts. And if a Bimmer owner scoffs, as they are wont to do, just ask how he likes his taxi.
The source for everything you ever wanted to know about the SHO, and one of the best auto fan sites I've seen on the web, is SHOtimes.com. This is an indispensable resource for SHO owners. All of the DIY cheap fixes I mentioned in passing are there, along with an excellent reference on troubleshooting literally dozens of different conditions and great how-to instructions for maintenance.
This may be hazardous to your wealth, but SHOShop.com is a wonderful and highly recommended source for replacement and aftermarket SHO parts. Excellent stuff at reasonable prices, and the best designed website I've seen for a speedshop.