ASHEVILLE, NC – The soon-to-be-released ’10 Ford Taurus flagship sedan originally was planned as an ’11 model.

But that changed when Ford Motor Co. brass decided to pull ahead the product-development program.

Not surprisingly, chief engineer Pete Reyes, who was tasked with overseeing development of the Taurus, was caught off guard.

“It was a shock to hear,” he tells Ward’s at a Taurus launch event here. “We talked about, ‘How do you realistically pull a year out?’”

When developing a new product, most auto makers have a set of procedures they closely follow. But the order from on high forced Reyes and his team to tear up the standard playbook and devise a new way to bring a product to market in record time.

“We quickly said, ‘We know the loads coming into this vehicle, it’s a known platform,’” he says. “When you know that, you can jump to computer-aided engineering tools until you go to hard tools. You don’t need a soft-tool base, and you don’t need to run a lot of mechanical prototypes.”

The new Taurus is based on Ford’s D3 architecture. The platform, originally developed by the auto maker’s Volvo Car subsidiary, underpins a number of vehicles, including the recently launched ’09 Lincoln MKS flagship sedan.

Reyes also faced the formidable challenge of developing the Taurus with reduced staffing levels. Since 2005, the auto maker has cut more than 60,000 jobs in North America, including some 13,000 salaried positions.

“Ford has reduced headcount over time, and we’re running pretty lean,” Reyes says. “But we still get 300 engineers at any given time working on a product.”

As Ford has gotten accustomed to working with fewer people it has been able to compress the amount of time engineers are required to work on a vehicle program, he adds.

To accommodate the reduced schedule, Reyes and his team decided to forgo the usual practice of building various physical models of components. Instead, they leaned more heavily on the auto maker’s suite of virtual tools.

In the past, Ford used virtual tools to augment other engineering work or to verify potential changes in the product design would work, but the auto maker was reluctant to rely too heavily on the technology.

“(We) never committed to it fully,” Reyes says. “But this was a commitment to say, ‘This is all we’re using until we get that first prototype,’ and that first prototype didn’t come to us until July 3, 2008.”

Throughout development, Reyes says top management offered full support, telling his team if a problem arose, “We’ll fix it, even it if takes time and money.”

Despite charting new territory, Reyes says the process went exceptionally smooth.

“I can’t point to a single big error we had to fix,” he says, adding, “there were a lot of things we retooled and finessed.

“It was a full commitment to computer-aided engineering and only one prototype phase, and that’s how we took the time out,” Reyes says, noting one phase would not have worked if the vehicle was not built on a known platform.

While Reyes admits the accelerated product-development timeframe won’t work for all vehicle programs, he says other Ford chief engineers have come to him for insight.

The ’10 Ford Taurus starts at $25,995, including destination and delivery, and will begin arriving in showrooms in late July. It will be built at Ford’s Chicago assembly plant.