Ford Motor Co. figures that Atlas -- a titan standing for strength and
endurance -- is just the right code name for the effort to create the
next-generation F-150, the country's best-selling pickup truck.
The Atlas, a concept vehicle showing off possible changes for an updated F-150, was unveiled earlier this year at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
The Atlas shows, analysts say, that as the pickup truck market improves along with the economy, Ford is preparing a stiff fight for any competitors trying to dethrone the F-150, which is made at the Claycomo Assembly Plant and a plant in Dearborn, Mich.
Just this year, both GM and Chrysler unveiled updated models of their most-popular pickups.
At the auto show, the Atlas boasted wheel covers that automatically close to reduce air drag and improve fuel efficiency.
The front grill, a critical part of a pickup's appearance, has been toughened up. And cargo capacity has been expanded with a metal support that pops up out of the tailgate. A canoe, for example, can be carried by resting one end atop the truck's cab and the other end on the tailgate support.
The Atlas "is the rallying cry to what the future could bring to the F-series," said lead designer Gordo Platto.
The F-150 revamp is critically important to Ford because the expanding economy, especially the housing market, has set off a market-share battle for pickups. For decades, Ford has kept the F-150 at the top of the heap. It recently announced it was adding 900 jobs at Claycomo to keep up with demand.
But the F-150 was last redesigned in 2009, putting Ford behind its competitors' improved pickups.
Although Ford won't confirm it, the F-150 revamp is expected to be offered next year.
Michael Omotoso, an analyst for LMC Automotive, said the F-150's lead in sales could narrow even with a new model.
But the F-150 should retain its role as the country's best-selling pickup. "They obviously know what they are doing," he said.
Ford's two big competitors emerging this year are getting attention.
The Ram 1500 has been winning industry awards, including Motor Trend Truck of the Year. It has rated highway fuel economy of 25 miles a gallon, best in its class, and among other things is mating eight-speed transmissions with its engines.
It also offers special features like adjustable air suspension, which can lower the cargo bed for easier loading.
"We think it's going to be a very good year," said David Elshoff, a Chrysler spokesman.
The new Chevrolet Silverado, in second place in sales behind the F-150, is just now rolling out. The vehicle and its sister the GMC Sierra will rely on V8 engines for a majority of sales but with fuel efficiency boosted by technology that deactivates cylinders when the extra power isn't needed.
It also has a redesigned cab to reduce wind noise, new interiors and a step built into the rear bumper for easier access to the cargo bed. The bed also has LED lights while the cab's interior comes with seven trim levels.
"Going from the oldest truck in the segment to the newest gives us a stronger position in the market," said Tom Wilkinson, a GM spokesman.
Full-sized pickups are especially important for Detroit's Big 3, which over the years have largely fought off imports. Through April, they had nearly 80 percent of the U.S. market
The recession hit pickups hard, but they have rebounded with sales rising three times faster than for the rest of the auto industry.
The improvement is especially credited to stronger housing starts, which closely track pickup sales.
Also, the average age of pickups on the road is 11 years making them candidates for replacement, said Erich Merkle, Ford's U.S. sales analyst.
"What is happening that is full-sized pickups are an industry in and of itself," he said.
The surge in full-size pickups goes against the trend to smaller vehicles that is even affecting SUVs. Sales of small pickups are actually down sharply.
Some pickups are still bought by "air haulers" who rarely use them to carry cargo. But the meat and potatoes of the pickup market is those who need them for work while at the same time using them for other tasks like taking their kids to a soccer game.
"They're buying them for work and recreation," said Merkle.
Analysts -- and consumers -- say the F-150 thrives by providing the pickup's trilogy of performance, comfort and practicality. The F-series pickup line sold 650,000 units in 2012 and about two-thirds were F-150s.
The company has also boosted fuel economy with its EcoBoost six-cylinder engines, which also comes with turbocharging to increase power. Going to a six-cylinder was a delicate move because truck owners viewed the V-8 and its power as the engine of choice.
"The unknown was would the truck customers come around and they have," said Jackie DiMarco, chief engineer for the F-150.
The number of F-150s sold with the EcoBoost engine is approaching 50 percent. But a redesign comes at a time when questions are being raised about the performance of the engines.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently opened an investigation after it received 95 complaints about reduced engine power during hard accelerations. The investigation of the 3.5L EcoBoost engine so far hasn't caused a recall of potentially 400,000 vehicles.
In the F-150, Ford has also put more emphasis on comfort because owners typically spend a lot of time in them. About 30 percent of F-150 sales come from premium models such as the F-150 Limited, which has brick-red leather seats.
"This is not your daily commute," DiMarco said. "They're in their trucks (through) the day."
A successful pickup has to be practical and tough looking. For designers of the Atlas the goal was a "tough beauty."
Work on the Atlas began in earnest in early 2012, with a range of drawings. On one end were versions with lots curves and on the other were boxier industrial looks with sharp angles.
What Ford designers ended up with was something in the middle, with curves but still with enough angles to give it the required look. The grill set the tone. It has what appears to be two large holes on each side that designers describe as giving the appearance of a #8226's nostrils.
"The truck has to be undeniably tough," said lead designer Platto.
Just how much the new F-150 will resemble the Atlas is unclear, but how the Atlas came together provides some clues.
Designers considered extending the windshield up over the cab, like a sunroof. But they decided that the territory should be put to a more practical use. The cab's roof was tweaked to carry cargo when combined with a metal support from the tailgate.
Ford also wanted to improve wheel aerodynamics with solid wheel covers. But they were ugly when the truck wasn't moving so designers engineered "active wheel shutters" that only close when the pickup hits the highway.
"We were thinking out of the box," said Platto. "We do these things because we are the leader in trucks and we want to stay the leader," he said.
To reach Steve Everly, call 816-234-4455 or send email to email@example.com.
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