Feb. 07--America's biggest loser -- truck edition -- shed 700 pounds this year.
Ford will show its 2015 version of America's No. 1-selling vehicle, the F-150, sporting an entirely aluminum body, at the Chicago Auto Show. The show, at McCormick Place, is open to the public Saturday through Feb. 17.
Trucks and cars are typically made with steel.
Ford says the new truck will have better fuel economy -- its most fuel-efficient truck gets 16 miles per gallon in the city, 23 on the highway -- a topic at the top of automakers' minds as cars and light-duty trucks must average 54.5 mpg by 2025.
Even though the truck is lighter, Ford says it will have a greater towing capacity than the current 11,300 pounds. The company's biggest obstacle will be convincing consumers that the aluminum truck won't crush like a beer can beneath a shoe.
Ford Truck Group Marketing Manager Doug Scott said consumer surveys have shown that 80 percent of its consumer base understands aluminum's durability.
"So, then, it's those 20 percent who are going to say, 'OK, it's the soda can, the beer can I can crush with my foot.'" Scott said. "So, that's the task for us as marketers going forward ... we're going to show the kind of durability testing that we've done."
Scott said the company raced one of the aluminum-body trucks in November in the Baja 1000 -- it's a notoriously tough off-road race -- and will use marketing materials from that. Ford also will be working to educate salespeople to talk science with skeptics.
"People say if the truck is lighter, how can it be tougher? Well, the simplest explanation for that is that aluminum is a third the density of steel," Scott said. "We can thicken the material ... there's more volume (of metal) in today's truck."
Ford said it anticipates no compromises on safety, though official safety results won't be available until after the truck is mass-produced. Even though aluminum costs about three times as much as steel, an analyst said, Scott said the price range should be comparable to its current $23,000 to mid-$50,000s.
The new truck should go on sale during the fourth quarter this year.
Scott said the company was willing to take the risk only after a real-world test scenario. The company substituted the steel bodies for aluminum on some of its current pickup trucks and sent them to business customers -- gold mining, energy utility and construction firms that "really punish" the vehicles. After 300,000 miles of total use, Ford brought the trucks in to analyze and made some sections thicker.
After that trial, Ford decided to go all in.
The aluminum alloy that Ford will use is the same that the military uses for its Humvees and Bradley Fighting Vehicles, Scott said, which is why it will tout "military-grade aluminum" in its ads.
The truck has been the No. 1-selling vehicle in America for 32 years, and chief analyst Jesse Toprak of Cars.com said the gamble isn't small. The company makes about $11,000 profit on an F-150, compared with $5,000 on a car, he said.
The No. 2 U.S. automaker posted its second-highest pretax profit of the past decade in 2013, at $8.57 billion, trailing $8.76 billion in 2011. Also, last week, it reported higher-than-expected quarterly results, but declining vehicle prices in North America raised concerns for 2014.
Toprak said the aluminum innovation seems like a good bet for Ford because the company's customers are among the most loyal in the industry. He also said getting better miles per gallon could be a benefit for individual consumers and small-business owners.
"Gas mileage for small-business owners is one of the greatest expenses for them, so that in itself is a huge obstacle," Toprak said.
Ford also introduces a new 2.7-liter EcoBoost V-6 engine at the car show, to go with its 3.5-liter engine.
Chevrolet, which won North American truck of the year for its 2014 Silverado 1500, as chosen by automotive journalists, and other manufacturers also tout more fuel-efficient vehicles. Chevrolet's bifuel-capable trucks can run on gasoline or compressed natural gas, which spokeswoman Joyce Mattman said could save someone who puts 26,000 miles on a truck annually $2,000 a year.
Mattman said she questions whether Ford will be able to repair the vehicles efficiently when they're damaged.
"Our customers have told us ... what about repairability?" Mattman said. "I want to make sure I keep the vehicles on the road. Can people work with aluminum, and how much will they charge for it? There's a lot of questions in their minds about that now. Time will really tell on that."
Ford officials said they have lined up aluminum supplier relationships with Alcoa, Novelis and Aleris.
Jessica Fini, a spokeswoman for Honda, said her company, for its cars, has increasingly switched to high-strength steel, which is stronger and lighter than typical steel.
"It's striking a balance between safety and fuel efficiency," she said.
John Sternberg, a product specialist for Toyota, said his company uses steel for its cars and trucks because its rigidity has been proven.
"It's affordable and it works really well," Sternberg said. "We have plans staying (with) what we're doing for the future. ... Ford makes great products. Any innovation in the industry is great for everybody, because it makes us all better."
Toprak said that if the "experiment" is a success, that achievement will put huge pressure on competitors to follow suit.
"I don't see GM just sitting idle as Ford potentially grabs customers from them," Toprak said. "I'm sure there's already wheels turning. Overall, if this experiment proves positive, we're probably going to see more use of aluminum (in the auto industry)."
(c)2014 the Chicago Tribune
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Distributed by MCT Information Services
Original headline: Ford shows off lighter F-150 at Chicago Auto Show
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