Consider Ford Motor Co.'s perilous situation: its all-new Taurus and Sable midsizers, the company's perennial best-selling passenger cars, are ready for introduction into a weakening market -- a market suddenly flash-point sensitive to "affordability."

Yet in the first major redesign since their initial launch a decade ago, the 1996 Taurus and Sable -- codenamed DN 101 are more complex, take longer to build and will doubtless be more expensive; some reports have them going up 7% from the '95 versions. Ford needs to move about a half million of them, and at full capacity will be able to build 600,000.

"This is probably the biggest car launch challenge Ford has ever faced," admits James D. Donaldson, Ford's no-nonsense vice president-Large Front Wheel Drive Vehicle Center. Mr. Donaldson won't say how much DN 101 has cost Ford -- the company probably learned its lesson from tossing about CDW 27's (Contour/Mystique) $6-billion pricetag. But it's safe to say its a multi-billion-dollar deal, and the new platform reportedly will spawn batches of new cars and trucks by the late 90S.

Not long ago, such a big program may have been cause for some serious angina-instilling angst in Ford's Glass House world headquarters. But the new Taurus and Sable were developed with a collocated team approach, like the current-generation Mustang. As such, it stands as a mini-progenitor of the much-touted Ford 2000 program, the world-encompassing reorganization that eliminates formerly separate European and North American new-vehicle development processes and incorporates all aspects of product design, development and even marketing into five Vehicle Centers, or VCs.

Although DN 101, some 38 months in development, already was a formal program before Ford announced it would merge its North American Automotive Operations (NAAO) with Ford of Europe to create Ford Automotive Operations (FAO), the strategy used to bring the 1996 Taurus/Sable to market is an early case study for how team-oriented Ford 2000 will work.

The 1996 Taurus/Sable development process "set a template for how new products will be developed under Ford 2000," confirms Jacques Nasser, Ford group vice president for product development.

In a DN 101 presentation to the Society of Automotive Engineers, Richard Landgraff, director-Taurus/Sable, Continental Vehicle Lines, says the new cars' development relied on the collocated teams and Ford's World Class Timing concept, initiated to increase the rate of information flow and to cut development snafus.

He says collocating makes all team members "owners" of the entire vehicle, not just the part or subsystem for which they're individually responsible. The team then used World Class Timing techniques and a program self-diagnosis strategy Ford dubs "Metrics" to continually evaluate each individual program objective and keep it on track -- and on time.

But before any dedicated development began on the new Taurus/Sable, a small collection of engineers in Ford's new Advanced Vehicle Technology (AVT) group already was at work, analyzing the astonishingly varied array of new technology always under study at Ford -- everything from advanced catalysts to hood-spring sound-deadening materials -- and deciding what was, perhaps, ready for production. Much of their work, curiously, is done "blind," that is, either without specific program goals or before the company has committed to a program.

"A lot of what we did was before we even knew what DN 101 was," says one AVT engineer. At AVT's beck and call are two Cray C90 supercomputers used throughout the company. With the Crays, Ford possesses the largest non-government-related computer capacity in the U.S.

AVT will be crucial to all new-vehicle programs: shorter development cycles make it all the more important "to start with the right essentials. Spending efficiency, is important," says Neil W. Ressler, head of AVT.

For example, Ford used laser holography to optimize sheetmetal gauging for the new Taurus and Sable. Once the sheetmetal was approved, the lasers crept over every curve and crevasse. Then it was up to the Crays, working with 200 different available metal gauges, to juggle the almost infinite possibilities for sheetmetal gauging in line with desired parameters for rigidity, noise-vibration-harshness (NVH) qualities, corrosion resistance and so forth at a given point on the body.

The Crays -- their innards water-cooled to relieve the electronic stresses that come with solving in seconds problems that would take humans decades to dope out -- worked the final optimization program for 12 hours. A nifty 17 lbs. (7.7 kg) was yanked out of the bodywork.

The same body engineers crafted some fancy new structural tricks for the Taurus/ Sable. Adding "beads," or slightly raised, scooped-out indentations located at strategic points in the floorpan, increased overall stiffness, decreased weight and reduced NVH.

The body team identified critical points in the structure -- say the base of the B-pillar, for example -- and found the stiffest body structure used by a competitor. At that point they studied the rival's structural technique for achieving that stiffness. Then they determined the class-leading stiffness "value" at all the study points and set the Crays cranking yet again to optimize the most effective combination of stiffness-enhancing techniques for the new Taurus and Sable body.

The result, says the body engineering team, is a gigantic 87% increase in torsional rigidity over the 1995 Taurus/Sable (DN 5). Countering General Motors Corp.'s well-publicized claim for a 25-Hz "natural frequency" in all body-structure modes for the Oldsmobile Aurora, the Ford engineers say that the most crucial body mode, in terms of customer satisfaction, is actually torsion; to that end, their figure of 27 Hz for DN 101 beats the rock-hard Aurora.

All that stiffness doesn't mean much if the car can't be put together efficiently, so manufacturing team members worked with the rest of the DN 101 team to decrease the possibility of assembly line car-to-car variation. Perhaps the most important payoff: the percentage of DN 101 parts with "common" locators increases to fully 90%; in the current Taurus/Sable, the number is just 10%.

That, combined with a bodyside stamping that is a single piece from the B-pillar to the rear taillamps, means body panels that fit with a meaningful new degree of flushness and gap consistency.

"I'm delighted with the body fits," says Mr. Donaldson. "The controls we have on tolerances are the best I've seen. Quality is imperative, because these days it's the ticket to the dance."

Some industry skeptics titter about Ford's concession that the new cars are more complex and thus will require more assembly time -- perhaps as much as two hours per car. That strategy flies directly in the face of current industry practice of designing vehicles to use fewer parts and spend less time on the assembly line.

George C. Bell, Taurus/Sable program chief engineer, admits the new cars will take longer to build, but adds that "You're comparing the run-out of an old program, one with every efficiency wrung out, with a new program." Once the launch is up to speed, Mr. Bell believes the assembly time gap will close. Similarly, the DN 101 team placed product specialists in the Chicago and Atlanta Taurus assembly plants two years before Job One to continually refine the assembly process and identify problem areas. Production begins in Atlanta on June 19, in Chicago, July 17.

Ford is convinced the team approach will mean exceptional designed-in integrity. But will the 1996 Taurus and Sable actually beat the renowned Toyota Motor Corp. Camry in terms of overall quality, as the Detroit Free Press recently reported Ford says it will do?

"It would be presumptuous to declare victory before the battle is launched," asserts Mr. Donaldson. "We've got to earn our spurs."

That "earning," of course, will come at the indulgence of the customers, who likely will vote first on the new cars' styling. Douglas F. Gaffka, design executive- mid-size car design in Mr. Donaldson's VC, says his crew went through 17 iterations before the final shape was decided. Signing-off on the new sheetmetal was a chore for the entire team, he says, because the goal is to retain styling that would appeal to the Taurus/Sable's current owner base while attracting new, younger buyers into the fold.

Curiously, Ford also wanted the new cars, despite being larger in all critical dimensions, to appear smaller than the outgoing Taurus. "We want the cars to go head-to-head with imports," says Mr. Gaffka, "so we didn't want our car to look like a typical American car." He adds that women in clinics have shown a predilection for being uncomfortable with the perception of driving a large car.

"We're confident about the new design," says Mr. Gaffka. "We'll see if it presses the right buttons."

Just don't go looking for most of the DN 101 team for after-the-launch comment. Typical of the ad-hoc fabric that ties such teams together, many are already off to other programs or exploring new technology.

Mr. Donaldson says of the original 800-odd persons on team DN 101, the number is down to a few hundred. Most who've left already are working on future minivans (a people-hauler -- perhaps the next-generation Windstar -- spun off the DN 101 platform is almost certain) and front-drive passenger cars.

Even DN 101 Program Director Richard Landgraff hasn't acclimated to the nomadic nature of Ford's new product-development teams. Overheard being asked to locate a former team member, he quips, "I don't know where he is. I probably couldn't tell you where any of these people are now."