Pete Reyes, engineer by training and manager by talent, had just finished the development and launch of Ford's 2008 Super Duty pickups and had been reassigned to study Ford Motor's testing methods when he had a fateful conversation.
Frank Davis, executive director of product development in North America, came into Reyes' Dearborn, Mich., office across the road from Ford's test track, closed the door and said, "I'm not leaving until you say, 'Yes.' "
That was October 2007. Since then, the corporate G-forces haven't let up for Reyes as chief engineer for the Taurus' redesign. He was taking over a pet project of CEO Alan Mulally that had begun in June 2007 and already was behind schedule.
PHOTOS: Get a closer look inside and out of the 2010 Ford Taurus
The marching orders from Davis, a longtime colleague in developing Ford trucks: "We've signed up for an incredibly aggressive timeline. We're off. Go put it back" on track.
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The big 2010 Taurus sedan will be in showrooms around Aug. 1, and for more reasons than you have fingers to count, it's the most important Ford since the original 1986 Taurus.
The overarching reason, beyond the pioneering elements of its development: The car has to be a knockout because money-losing Ford (F) must sell more cars or join Chrysler and General Motors in Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
Taurus "is very important, a statement about Ford," Mulally tells USA TODAY. "The challenge we have is (convincing car shoppers) that 'We're back' in cars, with a full family" of car models.
He thinks he has a winner, calling the new Taurus "the neatest large sedan we have ever made."
While Ford's small Focus and redesigned midsize Fusion have hit sweet spots in the sour auto market, Ford has had no knockout punch, no flagship sedan that declares its car expertise in the way its top-selling F-Series pickups show truck prowess.
"People have always considered our trucks," says Derrick Kuzak, Ford's vice president in charge of global product development. "We're trying to get people to get serious about considering Ford cars."
Other reasons Taurus is critical for Ford:
•It is a radically new body, interior and suspension riding a rework of the current car's chassis — not quite enough to be literally "all new" in industry engineering parlance, but new territory for Ford's product line, design and marketing.
•It is intended to set the tone and pace for future Ford development programs.
•It is testing new theories about what big-car buyers really want.
•Its development included Japaneselike obsessing over small details owners might not notice unless the details are missing or poorly executed.
•Ford placed a big bet that computer design is advanced enough to bypass costly, time-consuming building of multiple generations of prototypes.
•Taurus has styling touches there just because designers liked them, believing they "assist in making the car more upscale, a little 'bling,' " says Taurus design chief Earl Lucas. "The old Ford would have said, 'Let's don't do that.' "
Though the original Taurus became the best-selling car in the U.S. in the 1990s, Ford had become a truck, not car, company by the time its 1991 Explorer turned growing SUV popularity into a craze.
In 2007, the last normal auto sales year, lopsided Ford sold twice as many trucks as cars at a time the industrywide split was nearly even: 53% of new vehicle sales were trucks, according to Autodata.
The first half of this year, with automakers still reeling from the recession sales collapse, cars still were just 38% of Ford's sales.
Mulally is quick to agree the new Taurus won't match the original's annual sales of 350,000 to 400,000: "Of course not. The market's changed. But that's not the plan. The plan is to have a vehicle for consumers in every major market segment. Have a full line, and whatever vehicle we have will be best in class."
For Taurus, he intends that to mean a stylish, tech-laden beacon that draws car buyers to Ford stores and validates his best-in-class assertion.
"It really is an attractive car. It has a style and distinctiveness and is a worthy flagship for the Ford brand," says John Wolkonowicz, North American auto-market analyst at economic consultant IHS Global Insight.
"But is this going to be the savior of Ford Motor Co.? No way, no how," says Wolkonowicz, who worked for Ford in product planning in the 1980s and as a consultant until 2003. "I believe the Taurus is a much nicer car than the (Chevrolet) Impala, but I believe the Impala will outsell Taurus based on its lower price."
The Chevy starts at $1,280 less than Taurus' $25,995 base. You can load Taurus up past $40,000, more than the likes of a Lexus ES 350 or Audi A4. Ford expects most Tauruses sold, however, to be about $29,000.
If Ford doesn't have to lard on rebates, "Taurus will be a very profitable car," Wolkonowicz says.
Relatively high prices might seem like madness these days, but Ford has its reasons. "How do you win in this (full-size sedan) segment? The data came back from several research studies and it was: When people buy large cars, what they're really looking for" are cars that evoke "$80,000 and $90,000 vehicles, the really beautiful cars," Reyes said by phone this week from Chicago, where he's overseeing the start of Taurus production.
"This can't just be a bigger Fusion," he says.
If you're willing to pay extra, Taurus offers as much radar power as you'd find in a fighter jet, Ford insists, to keep you safely away from obstacles ahead, behind and to the side. For a price, you also can have seats that heat, cool — and massage.
'It's all-in on this vehicle'
Pick the $38,000-to-start SHO performance version, and you get the first Ford EcoBoost engine, a turbocharged V-6 with V-8 power and V-6 fuel economy on regular gas. "It's all-in on this vehicle," Davis says.
He thinks Ford erred with its previous big car, the Five Hundred (briefly renamed Taurus by Mulally). It was "about 'we,' a family car." He says big sedans are "about 'me,' " the driver. Data show buyers first want them to look great, drive nicely and then, oh yeah, have room for the kids or some business associates.
Ford "broke the mold" for sedans "with the original Taurus' edgy design. Ford needs to get Taurus back to what it was, and this reminds me of that. It's no rental-car Taurus," says Jeff Schuster, director of auto forecasting at consultant J.D. Power and Associates. He sees annual sales of 80,000 in a couple of years if auto sales are more normal.
Taurus is the first true Mulally Ford — shepherded from start to finish — since he hired on as CEO in September 2006. Engineers were assigned in June 2007, and he gave them two years: "I said, 'What if we go back and make the very best Taurus we possibly can? How long will that take?' And they said, 'Three or four years.' I said, 'I don't think that works for me. We need to get back in the game fast.' That's where the two years came from."
Was that too fast? "I'm not familiar with any quality issues from doing it fast," Schuster says. "Ford risked more by not doing it fast," because the Five Hundred/Taurus "wasn't competitive" and was outsold by Impala more than 4-to-1.
Though it looks wildly different, the 2010 Taurus is based on the underpinnings of that previous car and the mechanically similar Lincoln MKS, so Reyes didn't have to reinvent the chassis, something that would have extended the development time a year or two.
Because Taurus is being built at the Chicago factory that builds the MKS, nobody had to reinvent the assembly process.
Reyes turned to computers to speed the rest. If they could be trusted for true images of, say, paint finish and accurate prediction of tolerances and the fit of parts, Ford could build fewer prototypes.
"Typically, I'd probably have built a big batch of prototypes about fall '07, then again late summer '08," Reyes says. Because of the decision to rely on computer modeling, "We never built the '07 batch of prototypes."
Prototypes are used to verify the fit and finish of all the parts, change the manufacturing tooling if there are problems and rethink small design elements if things don't fit exactly as planned. It can bring development to a crawl while engineers try to perfect the preproduction cars.
Strikingly, however, amid the hectic pace and intense focus on computer design and simulation, what did wind up taking months of hand work were some interior details.
For example, interior designer Lon Zaback wanted a realistic faux leather insert on the door panels to save the high cost of leather but deliver a pleasing illusion. Ford trim experts fashioned a real leather piece, stitching and all, as a mold, but it took four excruciating months to refine the process to turn out good-looking imitation leather.
"I didn't hear about that until it was all over. Four months?" Reyes says.
Zaback also wanted a certain look on the perforated speaker grille atop the dashboard. It required the tiny holes in the grille to vary slightly in size and shapes. A computer program was set up, didn't work and the holes had to be modified by hand. "Two months, I think," Reyes says, shaking his head.
Reyes also gambled on younger engineers' calls for changes with only half the normal testing time.
"It was understood that this was a go-fast program," says Cristina Rodriguez, development engineer responsible for the car's handling, the overall feel that defines its on-road personality.
"We didn't have the time to go back and forth in the decision-making," she says. There was no rounding up bosses for each change and having them "go out and drive the cars and say, 'No, that's not what we wanted.' "
She and steering engineer John Oliver knew the new Taurus needed complicated front suspension upgrades to erase the previous car's bland personality. Reyes recalls saying, "You tell me that's what we need, then that's what we need."
Rodriguez calls it "a matter of trust." Reyes calls it "getting the right people together in a room."
Either way, it grew from a decision early on not to blame, Reyes says. "I've been around projects, outside Ford as well as inside, and seen people spending more time trying to show that something wasn't their fault than getting it done," he says.
"There are going to be mistakes, but we're not going to waste time asking who did what."