Ford Gets the Aluminum F-150 Ready for Prime Time – ABC News

Posted: Tuesday, November 11, 2014
Ford F-150

Russell Barnett, a Ford dealer in Tennessee, is ready for aluminum.

Ford is using the metal almost exclusively in the body of the 2015 version of its best-selling F-150 pickup, which will arrive at dealerships next month. Barnett is already answering customers’ questions about the truck, and he’s updated his repair shop not only for the F-150, but in anticipation that other Ford vehicles will eventually make the switch from steel.

But just in case, he ordered some extra steel-bodied 2014 pickups.

“There will be some people who won’t want to change for a while,” says Barnett, who says pickups make up around half of the annual sales at his dealership in rural Winchester.

Ford is doubling down on aluminum, which is lighter and more expensive than steel but just as tough. The new truck is the company’s response to customers’ requests for a more fuel-efficient and nimbler pickup. Ford hopes the advantages outweigh customer doubts about the durability of aluminum or potential repair costs for the pricier metal.

It’s a big risk. So far this year, one out of every three vehicles Ford sold in the U.S. was an F-Series pickup. Morgan Stanley estimates F-Series trucks account for 90 percent of Ford’s global automotive profit.

On Tuesday, Ford kicked off production of the new truck at its Dearborn Truck Plant, four miles from the company’s headquarters.

“Yeah, this is a risk, but it’s one well worth taking.” said Bill Ford, the company’s executive chairman, as he stood alongside the assembly line. “For our customer, this is a big, big leap forward.”

The F-150 has been the best-selling vehicle in the U.S. for 32 straight years; last year, Ford sold nearly 100,000 more full-size pickups than General Motors.

Aluminum isn’t new to the auto industry, but this is the first time it will cover the entire body of such a high-volume vehicle. Ford made 647,697 F-150 pickups at its two U.S. plants last year; that’s one every 49 seconds.

If Ford’s bet pays off, it could pad its lead in the lucrative truck market. More importantly, aluminum “future proofs” the truck — and the company — in an era of rising fuel economy standards, says Karl Brauer, a senior analyst with Kelley Blue Book.

Ford will announce the truck’s fuel economy figures later this month. The company says the 2015 truck will have from 5 percent to 20 percent better fuel economy than the current version, which gets up to 23 mpg. A figure in the higher end of that range might convince some buyers to switch brands, says Jesse Toprak, chief sales analyst for the car buying site Cars.com.

“If I own a business and if I look at the numbers, and it’s going to add up over time, then I’ll think twice about it,” Toprak says.

Ford has the disadvantage of introducing the truck as gas prices are hitting a four-year low. But CEO Mark Fields says even when gas prices were $1.25, truck buyers still asked for better fuel economy.

“These vehicles are not just vehicles to our customers. They’re tools to help them do their job,” Fields says. “This thing has to deliver.”

Toprak believes Ford’s biggest risk is the unknown. Truck buyers simply don’t know how an aluminum body will hold up over time.

When Ginny Pruet, who runs a wedding rental business in Rockwall, Texas, decided to trade in her 2012 F-150 to get one with a backup camera, she chose a 2014.

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