Carlos Osorio / AP
Monday, Jan. 13, 2014 | 2:57 p.m.
DETROIT — Some call it a game-changer. Some just shake their heads. Either way, Ford's new aluminum-clad F-150 is such a radical departure from past pickup trucks that it dominated talk at the opening of the Detroit auto show.
Ford Motor Co. unveiled the 2015 F-150, whose body is 97-percent aluminum, on Monday. The lighter material shaves as much as 700 pounds off the 5,000-pound truck, a revolutionary change for a vehicle known for its heft and an industry still reliant on steel. No other vehicle on the market contains this much aluminum.
"It's a landmark moment for the full-size pickup truck," said Jack Nerad, editorial director for Kelley Blue Book.
The change is Ford's response to small-business owners' desire for a more fuel-efficient and nimble truck — and stricter government requirements on fuel economy. It sprang from a challenge by Ford's CEO to move beyond the traditional design for a full-size pickup.
"You're either moving ahead and you're improving and you're making it more valuable and more useful to the customer or you're not," Chief Executive Alan Mulally told The Associated Press in a recent interview.
But it remains to be seen if customers will accept the change.
"Trucks are put to such hard use. They take bangs and dings and a lot of hard use," Nerad said. "We'll see how the use of lightweight aluminum plays out in the field."
Ford is taking a big risk. F-Series trucks — which include the F-150 and heavier duty models like the F-250 — have been the best-selling vehicles in the U.S. for the last 32 years; last year, Ford sold an F-Series every 41 seconds. Ford makes an estimated $10,000 profit on every F-Series truck it sells. Michael Robinet, the managing director of IHS's automotive group, says the trucks account for about a third of the company's revenue in North America — $80 billion in 2012.
"Anytime you make a change with that vehicle, it's got to be well thought out, because you are really playing with the crown jewels of that company," Robinet said.
But Robinet said Ford had to make a change, since its trucks were heavier than competitors', hurting their fuel efficiency. Ford, which has been selling F-Series trucks since 1948, also has a deep understanding of its customers, he said.
"They wouldn't roll the dice on this if they felt it wasn't going to work," he said.
Competitors aren't panicking, but they're on notice. Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne, whose company makes Ram trucks, said he'll be watching the Ford truck carefully. Still he believes cost is still a big barrier to the wider adoption of aluminum.
"We've looked at it, but right now I can't make the weight to cost benefit analysis to work. But it may be my fault," he said.
The 2015 F-150 goes on sale late this year. As for cost, Ford wouldn't reveal prices, but its truck marketing chief Doug Scott says the F-Series will stay within its current price range even though aluminum costs more than steel. F-Series trucks now range from a starting price of $24,445 for a base model to $50,405 for a top-of-the-line Limited.
Pete Reyes, the F-150's chief engineer, said Ford expects to make up the premium by reducing its recycling costs, since there will be less metal to recycle, and by slimming down the engine and other components, since they won't have to move so much weight.
Aluminum is widely used on sporty, low-volume cars now, like the Tesla Model S electric sedan and the Land Rover Evoque. U.S. Postal Service trucks are also made of aluminum.
Up to now, Ford limited the aluminum on its trucks to the hoods and used steel for the rest. Robinet says the new truck has 20 times more aluminum on it than most cars now, at more than 660 pounds.
The move is bad news for steel makers because it signals a broader move to lighter materials, said Jeff Schuster, senior vice president of auto sales forecasting for LMC Automotive, an industry consulting firm. Aluminum, carbon fiber and even plastics will change the conventional thinking that cars and trucks have to get smaller in order to meet government fuel economy standards that require the fleet to get 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, Schuster said.
"I think the industry is fighting back," he said. Ford won't say what the new truck's fuel economy will be, but it will likely beat Chrysler's Ram, the current leader at 25 mpg on the highway.
Improvements in aluminum are also driving the change. Three years ago, for example, Alcoa Inc. — one of Ford's suppliers for the F-150 — figured out a way to pretreat aluminum so it would be more durable when parts are bonded together. Carmakers can now use three or four rivets to piece together parts that would have needed 10 rivets before, Alcoa spokesman Kevin Lowery said.
And Ford is able to take more risks. When the F-150 was last redesigned, in the mid-2000s, Ford was losing billions each year and resources were spread thin. But by 2010, when the company gave the green light to an all-aluminum truck, Ford was making money again. Mulally, a former Boeing Co. executive who joined Ford in 2006, encouraged his team to think bigger. After all, it was Mulally who led early development of Boeing's Dreamliner, which replaced aluminum with even lighter-weight plastics to be more efficient and fly further.
"Everything becomes more efficient once you take the weight out," Mulally says. He expects aluminum to be used across Ford's model lineup in the future.
General Motors Co. product development chief Mark Reuss doesn't anticipate widespread use of aluminum instead of steel, but thinks it could be useful in joints linking body parts and other high-mass areas. He says lightweight materials will be used mainly on larger, heavier vehicles, since that's where they have the most impact.
But makers of smaller cars, like Honda Motor Co., are using them too. Honda uses magnesium for steering beams and aluminum for hoods — among other materials — if they fit with a vehicle's design, said Honda's U.S. product development chief Art St. Cyr.
Ford is convinced truck buyers will accept the change. The company says the new truck will tow more and haul more. The frame — which does most of that work — is still made of high-strength steel, and the engine doesn't have to account for so much weight. It can also accelerate and stop more quickly. Aluminum doesn't rust, Ford says, and it's more resistant to dents.
Reyes says the company planted prototype F-150s with three companies — in mining, construction and power — for two years without revealing they were aluminum. The companies didn't notice a difference.
Still, Ford could have a tough time wresting customers from the competition, mainly Chevrolet, GMC and Ram, says Jesse Toprak, an independent auto industry consultant in Los Angeles.
"Movement between brands in the full-size truck segment is extremely minimal," Toprak says. "It's the strongest loyalty of any segment."