The buzz entering the Detroit auto show that began today was that Ford Motor Co. (F) would deliver one of the event’s most important introductions, an F-150 destined to be the first high-production vehicle with an aluminum body.
While Ford didn’t disappoint, its official presentation was almost absent any mention of the word “aluminum.”
In prepared remarks as a series of new F-150s burst through paper walls onto the floor of Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena, Ford executives used “tough” to describe their newest pickup at least eight times. Raj Nair, the automaker’s product chief, underscored that the new vehicle’s frame is made of steel -- stronger, he said, than the steel the company’s competitors use in their heavy-duty models. Only after that was the word aluminum uttered, and those in the stands heard it once.
“It’s a sensitive subject,” said Kevin Tynan, an auto analyst for Bloomberg Industries. “With any such change in direction, there will be doubts and incessant questions about whether it was the right move, the right time, and whether the execution is progressing according to plan.”
The F-150 represents a big gamble for Ford. The Dearborn, Michigan-based automaker is taking risks with its top-selling and most profitable model to shed as much as 700 pounds (318 kilograms) and close in on 30 miles (48 kilometers) per gallon in highway driving, people familiar with the truck’s performance have said.
As the top-selling vehicle for the last 32 years in the U.S. and the No. 1 truck for 37 years, the stakes of the company’s switch from steel in the pickup body extends to the broader industry.
Ford has spoken to companies beyond the automotive realm that have moved to aluminum, titanium and carbon fiber such as makers of boats, tool boxes and fishing rods to help craft its marketing message for the new truck.
“They all gave the same advice to us -- don’t spend too much time talking about the advanced materials, because that’s not what customers want to know,” Jim Farley, Ford’s global marketing chief, said in an interview. “What a truck customer wants to know is payload, towing and fuel economy.”
While automakers including Volkswagen AG’s Audi and Tata Motors Ltd.’s Jaguar Land Rover have used aluminum in their car and sport-utility vehicles, the F-150 is the first pickup to use the material throughout its body. Aluminum is more costly than the steel it replaces, and the auto manufacturing and repair industries have relatively less experience forming, fitting and repairing the metal.
The F-150 going on sale late this year boasts military-grade aluminum alloy throughout its body, Ford said today in a statement. The second-largest U.S. carmaker also added a 2.7-liter EcoBoost engine, the smallest-displacement powertrain in its truck lineup.
“It’s understandable that Ford wants to move the focus off the materials and process and back to the entire list of new characteristics and the vehicle as a whole,” Tynan said.
Chief Executive Officer Alan Mulally, who trained as an aeronautical engineer, is pushing Ford into the use of lightweight material commonly found in planes.
“Over time, you’ll see more and more aluminum across our product line,” Mulally said today in an interview at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. “It makes the most sense on the bigger vehicles because of the value you generate.”
The introduction of the production-version F-150 will serve as a bookend to the career of Mulally, 68, who plans to leave the company as soon as 2015, the truck’s first full year on the market. Ford promoted Mark Fields, 52, to chief operating in December 2012.
“Customers told us not that they wanted aluminum; what they told us was they wanted capability in their trucks and fuel efficiency, and they didn’t want to trade off the two,” Fields told reporters today.
The lean F-150 being unveiled today shared many of the same features as the Atlas concept truck that was lowered from the roof of Joe Louis Arena during last year’s show. These include LED lights in the headlamps, taillights, cargo box and side mirrors, and fuel-saving technology that shuts off the engine when the truck is stopped.
Ford added cameras to the F-150’s exterior to give drivers a 360-degree overhead view that makes parking easier and a rear camera that simplifies the process of lining up a trailer with the truck hitch, using a new 8-inch LCD screen.
F-150 is among 23 new cars, utilities and trucks that Ford plans to introduce for global markets this year, including 16 in North America, its biggest market. The flurry of activity in its U.S. factories that will build those vehicles will lead to a decline in production this year from 2013, Fields said.
“Our volume will be down a bit, but we’ll talk about those specifics at the end of the month” during the company’s earnings call, he said.
Ford’s truck plant near its headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan, will begin production of the new F-150 in the fourth quarter, Fields said. The automaker’s other F-150 factory in Claycomo, Missouri, will start output in 2015, he said.
Researcher IHS Automotive last year projected that Ford’s large-pickup output would drop about 8.5 percent in 2014 as the automaker changes over its factories to build the new F-150.
Keeping the cash-generating pickup plants churning will be complicated by the switch to aluminum from steel. Factories will need to be retooled with new dies and robots, and riveters will replace welders because of the differences in the two materials.
The upcoming F-150 will push Ford’s pickups closer to a 30 mpg highway rating, two people familiar with the truck have said. The top-rated pickup in the F-150 lineup for the 2014 model year has a 23 mpg highway rating.
Mulally and Fields said the new F-150 will be the most fuel efficient it’s ever been, without giving specifics. Fields also declined to say if the new truck will get the best rating in its segment.
Ford sold 763,402 F-Series pickups last year, according to Autodata Corp. The scale of the pickup line creates “good manufacturing efficiencies” to help offset the incremental cost of working with aluminum in place of steel, Fields said.
Pricing of the next F-150 wasn’t disclosed today. Starting prices for the truck begins at $24,390 for the XL model and tops out at $49,850 for the Limited edition, according to the company’s website.
“Aluminum is a little bit more expensive, but the value that it brings is not only with weight savings, but also with its durability and its toughness, it’s harder to dent,” Mulally said. “The value will absolutely go up and offset the extra cost.”
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