With the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) less that two weeks away, any news about the venerable Ford F-150 pickup is always welcome. This time it is also a bit confusing since Ford has neither confirmed or denied a lot of what is being written about the highly-anticipated 2015 model which was concepted as the Atlas.
It all stems, it seems, from the report — not commented on by Ford — that the actual vehicle will weigh about 750 pounds less than its predecessor through the use of aluminum as a replacement for steel, most specifically on the body panels. Using the generally accepted model of one more mile per gallon for every 100 pounds of weight loss, that would increase mpg by about seven miles — a game changing difference.
Most of the media coverage which, I suspect, Ford is not thrilled about, seems to have come from comments from Alcoa which were picked up first by the financial media and then by the automotive press. On it’s face, it is not too far fetched since vehicles like Range Rover have used aluminum body panels before. But, we are talking about comparing the elephant to the flea when trying to treat America’s largest selling vehicle — with a huge price range — with one that has a high-end market niche. Ford is on target to sell about 750,000 F-150 trucks in 2013.
So, with that caveat, here are some photos and “facts” about the new F-150, as well as my take on the story.
It is most unusual that Ford is in a follow-on position when it comes to trucks, playing catch up when it comes to fuel economy. Their EcoBoost engines led the pack a few years ago, and still offer very respectable numbers. The competition has heated up, however, with everyone trying to best them, the game is changing. That includs the Ram 1500 2.8 TurboDiesel, which captured last year’s Motor Trend Truck of the Year honors for this year. GM’s new Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra are in the hunt. It is expected that 2015 will also be bringing a new Nissan Titan and small trucks from GM. (I expect that Ford may change its mind about bring the Ranger to the US if the GM entries are successful, here.)
Unfortunately Toyota’s 2014 put more attention on aesthetics than on fuel efficiency or engine/drive train improvements, but that could change over time and I like to think that they are in this truck business for the long haul.
The reports about the use of aluminum components infer that problems with regard to pre-production prototype parts are not meeting Ford’s expectations. There are technical issues with the material that include pressing and forming, bonding and welding, as well as the need for robotic equipment that does not rely on magnetic properties to move it through a standard automotive mass production line.
Even if all of the scuttlebutt is true, I suspect that — because of its cost, perceived strength and durability performance sacrifices, and other factors — an aluminum-intensive version of the F-150 might be a halo model but will never replace the steel-bodied version in great numbers.
Think of it this way: when Ford introduced the EcoBoost engine in the F-150, they didn’t discontinue other engines. In fact, they have continued to improve their other engines. This is the workhorse of all trucks and it has many functional uses as a sport truck andwork vehicle; a fleet truck or tow vehicle. Even as the much-loved Raptor. Looking at it that way, and considering all of Ford’s state-of-the-industry manufacturing facilities, could you believe that it would abandon its position as the industry’s volume leader, not just in pickups but it all vehicles.
That said, everyone probably needs to take a step back along with a deep breath. Yes, I think that Ford may have an aluminum-intensive truck as part of the F-150 lineup. It will probably get the best fuel efficiency in the industry in this segment — at least for now. It will not be a factor for the truck buyer who loves Ford and will never even look at anyone else’s pickup.
I think it is more important that a 10-speed transmission (developed with GM) may become, over time, standard in all Ford trucks. Now that’s news.