Vision67, the taurus is definitly a great value as well as a very safe car. However, I would to point out that it's high ratings come from frontal crash tests, where as the side ratings are not as great as the frontal. Such cars like the toyota corolla even outperform the taurus in side crash test ratings (however the corolla slightly trails the taurus in frontal crash scores). A honda civic 4 door w/o side airbags actually performs just as well, even beating the taurus in many of the tests. Here's a website which has the ratings: http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/NCAP/Index.html
Another great website is http://www.hwysafety.org
The only thing that scares me about the smaller cars is the footwell area
Owning two tauruses since I was 16 (had a 95se for almost two years, someone ran a redlight and totalled it, so I got a 96lx), I can give you a few pros and cons which I have come across:
*Bigger car - means greater changes I will be the one driivng my friends around - (very good since I dont trust their driving anyways)
*Very practical, lots of space, can fit a lot of stuff
*Very cheap to insure
*Very confortable/big, I can even take a nap in between classes in the back seat
*Great frontal crash protection
*This car does not grab a lot of attention, so cops are less likely to go after you.
*Reliability - my car (96lx) has been nothing, but a total piece of junk, buy esp warranty and make sure you get into a good relationship with the service manager
*Car is big - some times difficult to maneauver through college parking lots and spaces. Since 99% of the time I am driving I am alone, I wish I had a smaller car.
*Gas milage isn't the greatest - especially with my 30 miles a day comutes to college.
*Side crash protection
*Resale value - you get a great value when you buy it, someone else gets an even better value when you sell it.
*I'm already sick of my taurus (96lx), its really boring and I'm dying for something else. My parents paid for this car, so I'm not complaining to them. Right now I am working and saving up for the car pictured in my signature.
*note, this is entirely my opinion and soley reflect my 96lx.
I recommend going with a 2002 or newer. Those still have some factory warranty left, plus ford made a few changes and I have yet to see anyone post any major problems about the 2002 and newer.