Ford Shows Atlas Pickup Concept Promising Better Mileage

Ford Motor Co., trying to fend off new pickups from competitors aimed at its top-selling F-Series, showed an F-150 prototype with features that boost fuel economy and foreshadow its future for the segment.

The Ford Atlas concept truck has active grille and wheel shutters and a front spoiler that drops down at highway speeds to improve aerodynamics, Raj Nair, group vice president of global product development, said today at a press conference at Joe Louis Arena, near the site of this week’s Detroit auto show. Those new technologies boost fuel economy by 2 miles (3 kilometers) per gallon.

“We’re going to do whatever it takes to be preferred in that market segment,” Chief Executive Officer Alan Mulally said of pickups today after a speech at the Automotive News World Congress conference in Detroit.

Ford intends to protect the F-Series’ 36-year reign atop the U.S. pickup market as General Motors Co. prepares to introduce revamped Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra trucks this year. The F-Series accounts for 90 percent of Ford’s global auto profits, according to a Morgan Stanley estimate.

The Atlas has a massive front end, with thick chrome bars across the grille accented by narrow LED headlamps. It features cameras in the front, rear and side mirrors to give the driver a 360-degree view on an 8-inch dashboard screen while backing up. It also has technology borrowed from hybrids that shuts the engine off at stoplights to save fuel.

‘Biggest Loser’

Ford is taking “appropriate risks” with its next-generation F-Series in order to remain the top-selling pickup in the U.S., Chief Operating Officer Mark Fields said in an interview.

“It’s a big important segment, it drives a lot of our image on the truck side, it drives a lot of our profitability,” Fields said. “We’re going to make sure we push appropriate limits in all elements of the vehicle to maintain leadership.”

That includes dropping as much as 750 pounds (340 kilograms) from the next-generation truck to improve fuel economy, Fields said. Ford has a goal to cut 250 pounds to 750 pounds from all of its models, with trucks going on the biggest diet, he said.

“It’s kind of like the biggest loser,” Fields said of the potential for taking weight out of the F-Series. “The biggest loser to turn it into a fuel-economy winner.”

Aluminum Parts

Ford rose 2.2 percent to $14.30 for its highest close in New York since May 2011. GM gained 0.9 percent to $30.60.

The Atlas shown today didn’t go on the diet the next F-150 will. The prototype “is pretty close to the current vehicle” in terms of weight, Nair told reporters. “It doesn’t have some of the functional things that we’re looking at.”

The automaker is examining using more aluminum in the next F-150, Mulally said.

“We’re going to use all of the lightweight materials,” he said. “We’re using more and more aluminum so I anticipate we’ll be considering more aluminum” for the new F-150.

The U.S. pickup market is showing signs of strength in 2013 after sputtering along with the U.S. economy the past four years. Homebuilding, a major economic barometer of truck demand, capped the strongest three months for residential construction in four years in November, according to the most recent U.S. Commerce Department data available.

U.S. pickup sales will top 1.7 million this year, up more than 50 percent from 2009’s low of 1.1 million, according to forecasts by researchers IHS Automotive and LMC Automotive.

2012 Results

Deliveries for F-Series climbed 10 percent last year to 645,316, according to Autodata Corp. The F-Series line in 2012 was the top-selling vehicle in the U.S. for the 31st-consecutive year, according to Dearborn, Michigan-based Ford. F-Series accounted for 29 percent of the company’s U.S. light-vehicle sales last year.

GM sold 418,312 Silverados, up 8 percent, and Chrysler Group LLC delivered 293,363 Ram trucks, a 20 percent increase, according to Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey-based Autodata.

Chrysler, whose trucks are gaining U.S. market share, began selling its revamped Ram 1500 late last year and is rolling out beefier heavy-duty pickups in early 2013. The 1500 is available with a 3.6-liter V-6 engine that surpassed Ford last year in offering the best fuel economy for a full-size truck, at 25 miles per gallon on the highway.

Fuel Economy

Ford wants to regain fuel-economy leadership by improving the mileage of its next F-Series by as much as 20 percent, two people familiar with the plan said last week.

“We know the fuel economy will be increasingly important, and we know the targets will be increasingly aggressive,” Nair told reporters after today’s press conference.

GM’s pickups, last redesigned in 2006, offer three new engines with fuel-saving technology such as cylinders that shut down to maximize mileage. More “fuel-economy strategies” are coming, Mark Reuss, GM’s North American president, told analysts during a Jan. 3 conference call, without elaborating.

Like Ford, GM is boosting use of aluminum. The Detroit-based automaker is using the metal in blocks and cylinder heads of engines for the 2014 Silverado, according to a statement last week. Some crew-cab models will use aluminum control arms and steering knuckles to cut 42 pounds, and the truck’s hood uses aluminum to save 17 pounds versus steel.

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