Sun04202014

On The Road

A trio of high-performers for different tastes: Ford Taurus, Audi S4 & Jaguar XFR

Photo The Ford Taurus SHO AWD may be the biggest sedan on the road at more than 5 feet tall and nearly 17 feet long.

Last month we drove three sedans – the Ford Taurus SHO AWD, the Audi S4 quattro MT6 and the Jaguar XFR – and each is the high-performance version of its manufacturer’s bread-and-butter sedan.

These cars vary in price, performance and especially overall driving experience, but when we take into account the type of driver for whom each of the sedans is designed, we can appreciate what there is to like about each one.

Once upon a time (way back in the 1990s), Ford manufactured a Taurus SHO (the knowledgeable owner pronounces each of the initials, which stand for “Super High Output”). Built into the midsized Ford sedan favored by the Hewlett-Packard fleet buyer, its high-powered specially built engine made it the ultimate sleeper, perhaps the first real four-door sports sedan built by an American company. But that was then, and the SHO went away, along with the Taurus that spawned it.

Now resurrected in the Ford 500 that has been rebadged as the new Taurus, it’s back and it’s bad. And big. This must be the biggest standard sedan on the road, more than 5 feet tall and nearly 17 feet long. With 20-inch wheels and all dimensions supersized, this car doesn’t look out of proportion, and it doesn’t drive that way, either. But get inside and you’ll be impressed by the amount of room. Five American-size adults can fit easily in this car.

Other things impressed us, too. First, we noted the extent and quality of the amenities, including heated seats with optional massaging cushions, an excellent sound system and the amazing Ford Sync system that can recognize three different cell phones and automatically connect to them while playing tunes on an iPod. This is impressive for a car that costs less than $45,000.

Second, Ford has seriously upped its game in build quality. The two-tone interior was sporty, as one might expect from a high-performance sedan, and it was also very neatly put together.

Third, where else can you get this level of performance, courtesy of that tuner twin-turbo six under the hood, in a family-sized sedan, for this price? All you need to sacrifice is fuel economy, but if that bothers you, then just drop down a step and look at the standard Taurus.

The driving adventure is all-American. The car feels heavy and solid on the road, but when you ask it to go, it feels like one of the old full-size muscle cars. It sounds like one, too – they’ve built an amplifying structure into the engine compartment to channel the engine sound into the interior in a mellow manner that completes the experience.

But unlike the old muscle cars, this one actually turns and stops, making it a reasonable contender in the handling category.

We’re not sure where to categorize the Audi S4. The Audi folks say it shouldn’t be compared with the benchmark BMW M3 sports sedan, but when the price and power are just a tick below that level, and it comes with a soul-satisfying six-speed manual transmission and a sport suspension, plus Audi’s patented four-wheel quattro drive system, we say, bring it on. If you don’t want manual transmission, Audi also offers the S4 with a slick-shifting seven-speed dual-clutch automatic.

The interior is certainly more understated than the Jaguar and the Taurus. It’s quite nicely done, as Audis always are, but that’s not why we would pay the extra money for that red “S” on the trunk lid. The upgrades on this small sedan are all in the way it drives.

The Audi S4 offers subtlety, style and excellent performance. We liked the speed-sensitive steering that was fingertip light in the driveway and solid at high speeds with good feedback through the steering-wheel rim. Likewise, the handling took advantage of the relatively light chassis and sport tuning to deliver a smooth performance ride on both tight and sweeping curves, enhanced by that all-the-time all-wheel drive.

We don’t know what the new Audi RS4 (rumored to be its next M3 competitor) will be like when it comes out, but until it does, the S4 will do just fine.

When we looked at the sticker price relative to the driving satisfaction this car delivers, priced right between the BMW 3 Series and M3 and the Mercedes C350 and C63, we had a Goldilocks moment: This car is just right.

If you feel like living large but also like your car to hustle through the corners on the back roads, you can start thinking outside the Teutonic triumvirate and look at British engineering again.

With Jaguar now comfortably settled into the pocketbook of Tata, its new Indian owner, we can all breathe a sigh of relief and start thinking about the impressive models that have been introduced from Jaguar’s traditional English home in the recent past.

Best of the Jaguar lineup is the XF, an elegant sedan that easily matches the Mercedes E-Class, Audi A6 and BMW 5-Series. And now, if you want extra power and are prepared to hand over a few extra dollars at the weekly fuel-up, Jaguar has supercharged its 5-liter V-8 in the 2010 XFR to produce some serious speed. It also has the brakes and suspension to keep it under control.

The only drawbacks we found in this new executive hot rod are that the styling makes it look a little bulky in the rear – the spin is to call it “muscular” – and yet, even though the interior is as Jaguar-elegant as it ever was, rear-seat legroom is still a bit too challenged to justify the $80,000 car as a client-mobile.

On the road, you can feel that extra bulk, but rather than lumbering around the ring, this heavyweight feels solidly grounded. We only had the backroads between here and Scotts Valley on which to play, but our taste certainly echoes the track tests in the big magazines. This new high-powered cat is definitely a contender.

Los Altos residents Gary and Genie Anderson are co-owners of Enthusiast Publications LLC, which edits several car club magazines and contributes articles and columns to automotive magazines and online services.

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