The 1998 Ford Taurus has a history of transmission problems and design issues, but I didn’t know that when I purchased mine in the spring of 2004. It only had 90,000 miles on it at the time of purchase, which is low enough for Wyoming where the only road to anywhere is a highway that takes hours to traverse. It seemed like a decent car for me, an expecting young mother with a 35-mile commute for work (one way). Certainly, it had to be better than the recently-deceased 1992 Geo Metro I’d been driving, and more…well, mine than the 1987 Plymouth Caravelle that a caring friend let me borrow.
Bear in mind that these are the decisions of a low-income pregnant woman on a used car lot – they all revolve around economy and the hope of limited future wrench-turning. The keys in my purchase decision included:
With these priorities in mind, we narrowed the choices down to this 1998 Ford Taurus and a decent-looking 1999 Pontiac Bonneville. Then-hubby wasn’t fond of the boxy and nondescript Bonneville, so Taurus won the day. We drove it past a mechanic friend’s house for a cursory checkup/checkout, who said there was a small leak in the transmission fluid but otherwise it looked fine. The oh-so-helpful car salesman found us a no-credit loan, and we drove the car home an hour later.
At the time of purchase, my “new” 1998 Taurus drove nice and smooth, but hung up a bit when it shifted gears. It also made a faint buzzing sound that my then-husband said was a problem with the power steering, and that he’d probably have to buy a new power steering pump. Here’s where I insert my first “little did I know” statement, because these two facts are important indicators of impending mechanical doom in a Ford Taurus.
Front-wheel drive vehicles in general are pretty good on snow and ice, and this car did not disappoint – a good thing, since my commute involved an exposed highway near Yellowstone Park that frequently experienced winter’s complications. My first drive over solid black ice saw a rock-steady car that barely slipped at all, even though the same conditions had caused a terrible accident for a coworker (RIP) half an hour before my own trip home.
I grew up on gas-guzzling pickup trucks and my first two cars were V8s – one a big-block – so I’m used to a lot of power. I thought the Taurus’ V6 was sluggish, and you probably will too if you have a similar driving history. Today I drive a 1996 Subaru Legacy, so I no longer have acidic “no power” remarks. The 1998 Ford Taurus has enough to pass nicely on highway or interstate, and to climb Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains without incident.
Fuel economy has different definitions for different people and, in 2004, I thought 25mpg on the highway was pretty decent. That’s what the Taurus did for me, and it’s not terrible for a used car with a low purchase price.
Sleek design or not (would it be offensive to say something like “ghetto sleek”? Trailer park sleek? Tight-budget sleek, at any rate), the build of the Taurus quickly turned into a problem. My last turn from the main road on the way home from work is at an odd angle, so you have to look at what would normally be the forward edge of a window to see oncoming vehicles. Because of the Taurus’s slanted design, though, the view at that turn is just the door frame. Changing lanes presents similar issues. In this small town it’s a nuisance to have to twist at a weird angle to see what’s coming, but in dense traffic it could be quite dangerous.
The radio in my Taurus didn’t work at purchase. The Taurus has a radio with a distinctive oval faceplate, which looks nice, but it means that off-the-shelf car radio purchases get a little tricky. If you want to replace it, you have to buy an adapter kit – about $85 at the time – to adapt the faceplate. We went to a junk yard and bought the radio out of a 1996 Taurus instead. It fit just fine, but they boasted different wiring harnesses. Online parts directories and auctions frequently have these radios too, but make sure you either know what year it came out of, or are comfortable with splitting up the factory wiring harness.
The interior has plenty of leg room and the seats are a firm, long-distance kind of comfortable. I have driven this car on trips exceeding six hours in duration without undue discomfort. The center console can fold in to make a third seat in the front, but any third person has to be a bit below average size to fit since this is not a particularly wide car. When folded out, the console provides places for two drinks and a little change compartment. The drink holders accommodate 32 ounce and smaller cups. If you want to super-size it, your passenger must do the honors as drink holder.
The day our son was born, my then-husband strapped the never-before-used car seat into the back of the Taurus, and then complained of installation difficulties. At 6’ tall and 380 pounds, he’s anything but a small guy. I assumed his size – not the car – caused the trouble. After trying it myself, I discovered it was the way the car’s design slanted the doorways. Once the car seat gets through the doorway it isn’t too bad, but anyone taller than my 5’6″ will likely experience significant trouble trying to get the seat in.
The car sprung an oil about six months after its secondhand purchase. Apparently, a seal in the oil pan slipped or something similar (the mechanic didn’t speak directly to me, and that telephone game is often non-specific). A friend of mine who drives a 1999 Taurus had the exact problem only days later, so let’s assume a possible model defect. It cost me nothing thanks to backyard mechanic friends, but it cost my friend almost $150 to fix.
One evening, my then-husband took the car to a friend’s house. On his return, he burst in and demanded to know when I last checked the transmission fluid. To my relief, the fluid was full – but the transmission still failed to catch, revving up but not going forward. A bearing in the transmission apparently spun out and caused all sorts of internal problems. Long and short, the transmission would have to be rebuilt.
Depending on your location, a rebuilt Taurus transmission costs around $600-$800 (prices checked in 2015), but that doesn’t include installation. Getting the transmission out requires a lift or winch that elevates the car enough to drop the transmission out the bottom, and all the suspension apparatus and what-not has to be removed first. It’s a lot of labor time that, if I’d paid my mechanic and his assistant – father and then-husband chose not to charge me – would have run over $1,500 plus parts. Research since then reveals that many, many 1998 Ford Taurus transmissions failed in the first 10 years.
I drove this vehicle for about a year and a half before the transmission went out. I had difficulties with visibility and working with the car seat. I know buying a used car is a gamble in any case, but I am confident I could have spent $5,000 – purchase price plus parts – and ended up with something I would have liked much better and that would have been less hassle. In fact, I’ve since spent $1,800 on a Subaru that’s older with a lot higher miles, put $150 worth of work into that car, and it’s still running beautifully after three years and a lot more mountain trips than the Taurus ever did.
Because of reports that transmission problems are common with this model, I do not recommend it as a reliable vehicle. Because of the visibility issues, I do not recommend it for people driving in high traffic. Finally, because of the issues with getting a car seat in and out of the back, I do not recommend this vehicle for young families. I’m not saying it’s a bad car, I’m sure there are many satisfied Taurus owners out there, but I’m certainly saying that it was a money-wasting bad choice for me.