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NAIAS: Ford unveils new aluminum F-150

9:17 AM, Jan 13, 2014   |    comments
Photo of the new Ford F-150 - from Hannah Saunders
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DETROIT (USA TODAY) Ford Motor's most important model, the F-150 pickup truck, finally gets a public showing here today, becoming the first big pickup made of aluminum as Ford sheds 700 pounds from a typical F-150 in the quest to save fuel.

The 2015 F-150, on sale this fall, also gets two new engines, major styling revisions, a plateful of technical updates and a marketing message that this isn't beer-can aluminum; it's military Humvee aluminum.

It'll be harder for a heavy load to dent the bed than in the steel predecessor and harder for a shopping cart to ding the door in a parking lot, Ford swears.

"All-new from the ground up," says Pete Reyes, the truck's chief engineer. "High-strength aluminum alloy for the front end, all the cab, the box, tailgate, he says.

The new frame has more high-strength, light-weight steel, and Reyes says it's "bigger, wider, stronger, but lighter."

Ford won't say how much more it costs to build the aluminum 2015 F-150 than a similar steel model, nor will it telegraph prices.

"We'll maintain a level of (price) competitiveness that we need to," Joe Hinrichs, Ford Motor executive vice president, and president of its North and South American operations, said in an interview.

Cutting the truck's weight means it can be powered by smaller, less-thirsty engines, and to that end, the two new engines are relatively small. Plus, the big, top-of-the-line 6.2-liter V-8 is discontinued, at least temporarily.

Lightening the truck also "lets the customer put the weight back in" with more accessories and higher payload and towing ratings, all without overwhelming the truck, Reyes notes.

When the the vehicle that accounts for most of Ford's profits hits showrooms in the fourth quarter, the automaker's marketing will hammer home the message that this is the most capable F-150 ever: It carries and tows more than the outgoing version while getting better mileage, potential buyers will be told.

"This is a critical redesign, not just for Ford but for the entire full-size truck market as we enter an era of rapidly increasing fuel efficiency standards," said Karl Brauer, senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book. "Ford needs to establish the F150 as a future-friendly model that will keep pace with government regulations while still meeting the demands of serious truck buyers."

And truck shoppers might not even need much convincing, especially tradesmen, says Raj Nair, the group vice president in charge of Ford's global product development.

"To them, the use of aluminum is not a big deal. They use aluminum tools, and the sites where they work use aluminum materials. They don't have any concerns about it as long as it meets our standards."

Reyes noted that he was put in charge much further in advance that typical for a chief engineer, to help manage the transition to aluminum.

Ford's no an aluminum virgin. It did much of the development work that allowed Jaguar and Land Rover -- then owned by Ford -- to build their aluminum-bodied vehicles and aluminium panels. Jaguar says the 2004 XJ was its first all-aluminum model.

Yet some analysts on Wall Street aren't confident the launch will go smoothly, precisely because of aluminum's peculiarities. Brian Johnson, auto industry analyst at Barclays, mused in a December note to his clients about possible " parallels between" the aluminum F-150 "and the Boeing Dreamliner," an airplane developed under Ford CEO Alan Mulally when he worked at Boeing that's had a rocky launch.

"Both are are innovative products using lightweight materials that push the envelope," and that suggests the F-150 might risk "start-up delays like the Dreamliner," he said in the note.

Ford poured gasoline on that flickering concern by saying in December that it was cutting its profit forecast for this year to $7 billion to $8 billion, citing the large of new-model launches this year -- 23 globally vs. 11 in 2013.

Ford's forecast made analysts wonder how much would be due to a rough start-up in the transition to the aluminum F-150.

Ford's Dearborn, Mich., truck plant will be first to build the 2015 F-150. Once that's running well, the other F-150 factory, in Claycomo, Mo., will switch, Ford says.

The changeovers are expected to cut Ford F-150 production this year, but Hinrichs downplays that: "We have continued to find ways to keep the capacity. Believe me, we won't run out of F-150s."

To help make the point that the truck can stand up to most anything, Ford will loan 2015 F-150s to people "who have vocations, or recreational uses, that'll really put the truck through its paces -- torture test it on their own" for several weeks, says Doug Scott, Ford's Truck Group marketing manager.

Ford says interested people can go to builttoughttest.com or text 43673.

If aluminum were the whole story, it still would be a big one because it's such a fundamental - possibly risky - shift in manufacturing and marketing Ford's reliable money machine.

But the 2015 F-150 has plenty more of note.

• New engine lineup: Base is a new-design, 3.5-liter V-6, down from 3.7-liter in the current truck, but expected to be more powerful.

One step up is 2.7-liter EcoBoost turbocharged V-6, which is from an entirely new engine family that Ford has developed. The automaker promises it will have the torque and horsepower of a midlevel V-8. Ford says it tested the engine by, among other things, running the grueling Baja 1000 off-road race.

The 5-liter V-8 3.5-liter EcoBoost V-6 from the current generation trucks will continue to be offered, based on the same engine the Mustang uses and carried over from the current generation trucks. 3.5-liter EcoBoost V-6, also carried over.

• Functional styling: Front door window "drop-down" is two inches lower, and mirrors are 3.5 inches further forward to open more viewing area just outside the door. Top of the cargo box in 1 inch lower for easier loading from the side. Tops of the doors are closer to vertical, for more lateral head space inside.

• Fancy and useful options: Cleat system on the cargo box walls can hold telescoping ramps that can be used to load garden tractors, ATVs and the like.

LED box lights help owners who use tonneau covers see what's in the box.

There now will be a power-lock tailgate, aping Chrysler Group's Ram truck feature,allowing the gate to be unlatched remotely and drift down gently because its movement now is damped.

High-power lights under the mirrors for work and camping.

There will be a full 360-degree view, via cameras in front, in back and on the mirrors. It'll provide a bird's-eye view to show what's all around, or a variety of other perspectives for parking, loading and navigating tight spots.

Trailer monitor that alerts the driver to any faults, such as a burned-out taillight.

Built-in 120-volt outlet handles 400 watts, up from 125 watts, for serious recharging jobs.

Also look for a huge panorama moon roof

 

USA TODAY

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