DEARBORN, MI – In November 2006, a team of Ford Motor Co. engineers and designers already were well on their way to developing the next-generation Taurus sedan when they were told their work was not up to snuff.

Mark Fields, president-The Americas, and Derrick Kuzak, group vice president-global product development, “made it very clear, it wasn’t good enough,” says Scott Tobin, director-car product development.

To Ford brass, the ’10 Taurus was not just any run-of-the-mill product program, but rather a key to the ailing auto maker’s turnaround. The car had to set the standard in the fullsize sedan segment. Anything less would be unacceptable.

It was the original Taurus that reinvigorated Ford in 1986, and the ’10 model is designed to do the same, Fields says.

The Taurus “set the nation on fire when it was first introduced,” he says during a recent look at the new model here ahead of its North American International Auto Show debut today. “For 2010, Derrick and the team pushed our product-development system to deliver a car that lives up to the promise of the original namesake.”

The new model is designed to be more upscale than its predecessors, which were aimed at families. Minivans and cross/utility vehicles are today’s family-haulers, while fullsize sedans have become “statement” vehicles, says Moray Callum, Ford’s car-design director.

“Everyone is buying good design now; it’s available everywhere from IKEA to Target,” he says. “There’s been a lot of give from the (product-development) team to listen to designers, and the results show.”

In designing the new sedan, Callum and his team wanted a more sculpted and powerful look, a departure from the rather sedate appearance of the current model.

That’s accomplished via a lowered roofline, “powerdome” hood and new headlights with recessed parking lamps that frame Ford’s signature three-bar grille.

For the back end, designers looked for inspiration in the Interceptor concept car, which was first unveiled at the 2007 North American International Auto Show.

“We took the two large taillamps, the chrome strip between the two and the simple Ford logo and moved the license plate down into the bumper to give this car a strong signature in the rear,” Callum says.

New wheels, ranging from 17- to 20-ins. in diameter, fill the wheel wells, lending the Taurus a “muscular and athletic” stance, Ford says. Accenting the strong proportions are raised shoulder lines, which provide a “confident” profile.

The attention to design was carried into the cabin, where emphasis was placed on craftsmanship, which Ford says is reflected in materials comparable in quality with those employed in “costly German luxury sedans.”

Minimizing gaps also was high on the list of priorities, Callum says.

The interior is “seamless, which implies well-built and gives an inviting feel,” he says.

A forward-leaning center stack flows unbroken through the instrument panel and down into the center console, housing climate controls, audio components and an optional navigation screen.

Among the most surprising additions to the interior are Ford’s new “Multi-Contour” front seats, which integrate a 6-way lumbar support and a subtle rolling-pattern massage feature. The bottom cushions also include “Active Motion” technology, which provide continuous movement to mitigate back fatigue during long trips.

“People are constantly adjusting their seats or their position to stay energized and keep blood flowing,” Chief Engineer Pete Reyes says, declining to reveal the supplier of the seats. “Research out of Germany by Ford shows if you have a slow-moving system in the lumbar, as well as the seat cushion, it can achieve all of that.”

To further differentiate it from other midsize sedans, Ford engineers went to considerable lengths to imbue the ’10 Taurus with sporty driving dynamics.

“The first thing we said was, ‘This thing can’t drive like today’s Taurus,’” Reyes says.

While the new car shares a platform with the Lincoln MKS sedan, engineers tweaked chassis and suspension components to optimize roll stiffness for better cornering.

Under the hood, the Taurus is powered by Ford’s Duratec 3.5L V-6, generating an estimated 263 hp and 249 lb.-ft. (338 Nm) of torque. Future plans call for an optional 3.5L direct-injection, turbocharged EcoBoost engine. Ford says an announcement on availability of the EcoBoost offering is imminent.

The Taurus comes standard with a 6-speed automatic transmission, while the SEL and Limited Series offer SelectShift with F1-style shift paddles mounted on the steering wheel.

In keeping with Ford’s long-term goal to become a leader in customer-focused technologies, the Taurus boasts a bevy of high-tech features, including adaptive cruise control, rain-sensing wipers, auto high beams, push-button start and the multimedia Sync system.

“When you call it a flagship, you have to load it with the latest technology,” Reyes says. “We have a long list of technologies that don’t exist in today’s Taurus. It changes the perception of Taurus.”

Ford expects Taurus’ main competition to be the Nissan Maxima and Toyota Avalon. But J Mays, Ford’s group vice president and chief creative officer, argues there really is no true competition for the new flagship sedan.

“There are not really any major competitors in the D-segment except for the sport version of the (Chrysler) 300C, and that’s getting a little long in the tooth,” he says. “This is going to be the freshest and most adventurous vehicle out there.”

Pricing for the ’10 Taurus begins at $25,995, the same price as ’09 models. The car will be built at Ford’s Chicago assembly plant and will hit dealerships this summer.

bpope@wardsauto.com