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Ford Gambles on New Aluminum-bodied F-150

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On: Mon, Aug 19, 2013 at 5:43PM | By: Bill Wilson

Ford Gambles on New Aluminum-bodied F-150

The Ford F-Series of pickup trucks has long been the Dearborn-based manufacturer’s bread and butter. Even in the dark days of the early and mid-2000s, when Ford cars were practically unsellable, the company’s truck line provided it with a reliable stream of revenue from millions of customers. The F-150 in particular has been consistently popular every year since 1982. The product’s slogan says why, as loyal owners are quick to affirm—the trucks are “built Ford tough.”

Part of that durability is due to the traditional all-steel construction of pickup truck bodies. That choice comes with a number of setbacks, however, especially in terms of fuel economy. For example, the 2013 F-150's 3.5L engine gets an estimated 17 MPG. That’s far below the company’s gas-powered savings champ, the CMAX hybrid, which gets an astonishing 47 MPG.

Traditionally, truck owners have been content to spend more at the pump in exchange for the ruggedness and load-handling capabilities pickups offer. But that has begun to change, due to the fact that gas prices remain high across the nation. Also, manufacturers are under pressure to raise gas mileage to meet recent changes in government standards.

GM and other firms are turning to high-tech features to accomplish this goal, such as installing hybrid braking systems and designing engines that will automatically shut down while vehicles are sitting at stop lights. Ford, however, plans to meet the new requirements with a distinctly old-school approach: by cutting body weight. To do this, they’re using aluminum for major body and frame components in the F-150 beginning in 2014.

Ford executives are enthusiastic about the switch, which they say will reduce vehicle weight by around 700 pounds and improve the truck’s fuel economy by at least 25%. The move will also allow the company to use smaller engines, further boosting gas savings. This will enable Ford to meet the new federal mandates at least through the year 2020. By that time, new technologies should be in place that will make trucks even more eco-friendly, such as batteries that can replace gas engines with no loss of range or power.

There are a number of potential problems with the move to aluminum, however. First of all, aluminum requires more care and hands-on work than steel, which will drive up production costs and raise sticker prices. Even more serious than this, however, is the likely reaction of buyers unhappy with the move from steel. Long-time F-150 buyers might abandon the model altogether, according to market observers.

Ford spokespeople dismiss these concerns, noting that the new bodies will be every bit as strong as previous ones. They also say that buyers will quickly learn to appreciate the financial advantages of the new trucks. Will this be the case, or will the great aluminum experiment prove to be a huge error on the company’s part? Time will tell.


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