Ford Motor Company deserves a standing ovation for the new 1996 mid-size Taurus and Mercury Sable. Make that a standing 'oval-a-tion.' Ford is spending a reported $100 million to introduce the redesigned, four-door, front-wheel-drive Taurus and Sable. For the past four years, Taurus has held the esteemed title of 'best-selling car in America.' The vehicle appeals to shoppers looking for solid, mid-sized cars priced within a family budget. Ford had tremendous sales success with the first-generation Taurus. So how does the company improve its best-selling honors? Ford choose a radical, rather than conservative road. We had a chance, recently, to test drive both a '96 Sable GS and a '96 Taurus LX. The re-designed models, introduced September 28, are a stunning departure from the first incarnations, which debuted as 1986 models. The new 1996 exteriors are more rounded and aerodynamic. At first glance, both Taurus and Sable look smaller then the previous, popular-selling editions. This, however, is an optical illusion. The 1996 editions are two inches wider. Taurus has grown 5.4 inches in length while Sable is a whopping 7.5 inches longer than last year. They're also heavier by almost 200 pounds. Taurus and Sable are also available in redesigned, four-door wagons. The oval is the geometric shape of choice. The dashboard's oval-shaped, integrated control panel, located between front seat passengers, combines audio and climate controls in one easy-to-read unit. Large, oval, stereo preset buttons are arranged diagonally, and easy to operate. Interior door handles also incorporate the oval shape. Floor mounted transmissions, available in five-passenger versions, also utilize oval cues. The rear is dramatically slopped, differing from last year when the exterior was more squared off. Sable differs from Taurus in subtle ways. Sable's back window has a more traditional square shape compared to Taurus' oval design. Sable's rear roof pillar is thicker. Front grilles and rear light layouts are also different. Sable has four side windows, while Taurus has six. Both, however, posses arching hoods and front, oval-shaped elliptical headlights. Taurus and Sable have local roots. Both are assembled at Ford Motor Company's Chicago Assembly Plant on Torrence Avenue. The facility was opened in 1914, and over the years has manufactured Cougars, Marquis, LTDs, Thunderbirds and Fairlanes, just to name a few. Ford also assembles Taurus an Sable in Atlanta. Dual air bags are standard as is air conditioning, speed control, rear window defroster, automatic transmission, intermittent wipers, six-cylinder engines and power windows and locks. Anti-lock brakes are optional. Shoppers have a choice of two front bucket seats, or bench-like front area accommodating three passengers. If only one or two passengers are occupying the bench seat, a flip-fold center council can move down and flip forward. Ford patented this device containing cup holders, change coral and cellular phone pocket. Transmission shifters are located on steering columns, rather than the floor, in six-passenger editions. Behind the wheel, controls are smartly placed and easy to view. Large power window buttons, found on the door, are simple to use. Ford incorporates a handy, dashboard transmission indicator on models with floor-mounted shifters. A large, center storage bin and retractable cup holder are also included in this design. Our Taurus featured blue dashboard back lighting, a nice touch during night driving. Another notable interior plus is the digital clock separate from the stereo display. It be viewed anytime by a passing glace, rather than pushing button. Headlights are activated from a dashboard dial control, left of the driver. Windshield wipers are controlled from the turn signal stalk. Back seat travelers have plenty of leg room, although head room for taller riders is tight. Ceiling handles assist passengers when exiting the vehicle. The back seat's 60/40 split allows access to the trunk area, increasing cargo carrying options. The trunk interior is long, shallow and has slightly less space then the previous generation. In order to improve rigidity, Ford invested $90 million in one single stamping press to make a single body side. The whole body side from the end of the front fender to the car's rear is one big stamp. This also keeps the interior very quiet when cruising at low or high speeds. Taurus sedans are currently sold in base GL, and a more luxurious LX edition. The LX ads power six-way power drivers seat, power doors air-filtration system, illuminated/keyless entry and upgraded stereo, among other nuances. Sable sedans are marketed as GS, and upgraded LS, which includes most of the same Taurus LX goodies. Our Pacific green Taurus LX, with the more-advanced Duratec V-6 engine, had a manufacturers suggested retail price of $20,980. With options, the bottom line was 22,390, including a $550 destination charge. The Sable's bottom line, with the standard V-6 engine was $20,355. Gas mileage is estimated at 20 miles per gallon in the city, and 29 mpg on the highway. Our green Taurus test car, with 3,700 odometer miles, registered 23 mpg combined city and highway driving, which is average for mid-sized cars. Sable's figures are comparable. Both Taurus and Sable have 16 gallon fuel tanks. During the 1995 model year, Taurus was the best-selling car in America with 398,000 units sold. The goal in the 1996 model year is to top 400,000 units. As long as middle class families, the bread and butter of its marketing mix, embrace new exterior cues, Taurus should have little trouble finding a place near the top of a best-selling list.