Ford is planning to meet new, tougher CAFE standards for its fleet by updating its next-generation F-150 pickup line with a body made largely of aluminum, according to an article in today’s Wall Street Journal. The paper based its story on unnamed Ford executives familiar with the company’s plans. This is far bigger news than Audi moving to aluminum construction in its A8 several years ago.
First, the F-150 sells in gigantic volumes. Last year, the company sold 584,917 F-Series pickups in the US (though that total includes Super Duties, the half ton F-150 comprises about 75 percent of that total, per registration data sourced from Experian Automotive and cited in the Journal article. That means that roughly 438,688 F-150s were sold in 2011. What’s more, F-Series sales are up 14% to date in 2012 compared to last year. If that pace of sales increase continues through the remainder of 2012 amidst the recovering auto market, Ford could sell a half million F-150s in 2012. Not only is that a large number in absolute terms; it’s also 26 percent of Ford’s US volume (total F-Series sales, that is).
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the F-150 is the franchise, the same way the 3 Series is critical to BMW. Any changes to the F-150 need to be carefully considered, because despite enviable owner loyalty from the Blue Oval faithful, a screwed up F-150 could have disastrous consequences for Ford.
Ford’s strategy with the F-150 has the potential to be a brilliant move, if it can be executed correctly. There were rumors years ago about Ford creating a smaller, more fuel efficient variant of the F-150 to be called the F-100, but obviously those plans never came to fruition. However, Ford has seemingly taken a page out of its rumored F-100 playbook for the next F-150. That is, keeping the truck fairly large, but making it more efficient thanks to a lighter weight and smaller engines.
With a body constructed mostly of aluminum, the F-150 would stand to lose a significant 700 pounds, or about 15 percent of its 2012 weight (weight savings will depend greatly upon configuration, naturally). But aside from the advantage of being lighter, aluminum carries several disadvantages. It’s more expensive than steel (even high strength steel), it can’t be shaped as easily, it’s more fragile, and it’s not attracted to magnets. That last one may not sound like a big deal, but it’s a big deal on the production line, where sheet steel is currently moved using giant magnets. Instead, aluminum sheets have to be moved using powerful vacuums.
Of note, Ford is going to keep a steel frame underneath the next F-150. An aluminum one would have saved more weight, but would have cost more and would not have been as robust as a comparable steel frame. (This is part of the reason the Corvette Z06 and ZR1 – cars with an aluminum frame in place of the base car’s steel unit – are not available as convertibles or even with a targa roof.)
Ford’s approach is certainly a gamble, and it’s one that its competitors are not prepared to attempt in their next-generation trucks. GM’s new trucks, which go on sale next year as early 2014 models, will shed some weight, but will stick with a steel body. However, GM is also going to launch the global Chevrolet Colorado midsize pickup as the Colorado and Canyon in the U.S. The midsizers will give up some capability to their larger brethren, but will cost less and will be more fuel efficient as well.
Both companies’ strategies bring a good deal of risk to the table. Ford’s risks are potentially turning off buyers who are afraid of the durability of an aluminum body, having to either charge a premium price or enjoy smaller margins on its trucks, and may also turn off buyers who do not care for the smaller engines that the Ford pickups are likely to feature. However, Ford also has a great opportunity to offer full-size comfort, performance, and capability with fuel economy on par with GM’s midsizers.
GM’s two-pronged approach is also not without risk. It’s counting on incremental fuel-economy improvements from the Gen V small block V8s, some weight reductions, and new 8-speed transmissions, but it seems a sure bet that Ford’s F-150 will beat the Silverado in the fuel-economy race. GM is also counting on sales of a midsize pickup – a segment that has all but disappeared in the past half decade, with only the Nissan Frontier and Toyota Tacoma keeping the lights on these days. Midsize and compact pickups disappeared from the market because they weren’t more efficient or cheaper than full-size trucks, but cost nearly the same, while sacrificing comfort and capability. It remains to be seen whether GM can successfully negotiate that balancing act with the next Colorado. GM’s opportunity is that it will continue selling more traditional pickups in a market dominated by tradition and decades-old buying habits.
According to the article, the rule of thumb is that every 10 percent weight reduction results in a 7 percent fuel economy gain. Applying that rule to the anticipated 15 percent weight reduction, the F-150’s weight loss alone should boost the truck’s mileage by 10.5 percent. Throw in the smaller engines that wouldn’t be overwhelmed by a lighter truck, add some improved aerodynamics, and perhaps transmissions with more ratios, and Ford is expecting to meet 2020 CAFE standards with its trucks about five years early.
It’s important to mention that an aluminum-bodied F-150 does not really mean anything for the heavy duty trucks arms race that has been ongoing for the past several years, with Ford’s PowerStroke diesels delivering an other-worldly 800 lb-ft of torque and 400 horsepower. The Super Duties will continue with traditional steel bodies (and frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them retain the same cab stampings that they’ve used since the 1999 model year for at least another generation or two) because
trucks in their size range (over 8,500 pound GVWR) are exempt from fuel economy standards – and their buyers need greater capabilities.
One sure bet for drivetrains in this next F-150 is further proliferation of the EcoBoost line. With the success of the EcoBoost V6 (as evidenced by favorable reviews and a strong take rate), perhaps we’ll see a smaller-displacement V8 choice getting the EcoBoost treatment. I wouldn’t be surprised to see V8s disappear from the options list entirely later in the decade. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see an EcoBoost four cylinder coming in to replace the current 3.7 liter V6 base engine. It’s quite possible to build a four cylinder using today’s technology that matches the power and torque of that 3.7, and tops it in efficiency.
Anything is possible. The question will be whether buyers will accept it. I’m betting they will, at least eventually. Manufacturers won’t have much choice, which means that buyers won’t either.