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Originally published January 13, 2014 at 6:09 PM | Page modified January 13, 2014 at 6:49 PM

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Ford rolls out aluminum F-150, gets Detroit auto show buzzing

A risky switch from steel to aluminum will help the top-selling vehicle in the U.S. shed 700 pounds and become more fuel-efficient and nimble.

The Associated Press

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DETROIT — Some call it a game-changer. Some just shake their heads. Either way, Ford’s new aluminum-clad F-150 is such a radical departure from past pickup trucks that it dominated talk at the opening Monday of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

Ford unveiled the 2015 F-150, whose body is 97 percent aluminum, on Monday.

The lighter material shaves as much as 700 pounds off the 5,000-pound truck, a revolutionary change for a vehicle known for its heft and an industry still reliant on steel. No other vehicle on the market contains this much aluminum.

“It’s a landmark moment for the full-size pickup truck,” said Jack Nerad, editorial director for Kelley Blue Book.

The change is Ford’s response to small-business owners’ desire for a more fuel-efficient and nimble truck — and stricter government requirements on fuel economy. It sprang from a challenge by Ford’s CEO to move beyond the traditional design for a full-size pickup.

“You’re either moving ahead and you’re improving and you’re making it more valuable and more useful to the customer or you’re not,” Chief Executive Alan Mulally said in a recent interview.

But it remains to be seen if customers will accept the change.

“Trucks are put to such hard use. They take bangs and dings and a lot of hard use,” Nerad said. “We’ll see how the use of lightweight aluminum plays out in the field.”

Ford is taking a big risk. F-Series trucks — which include the F-150 and heavier-duty models like the F-250 — have been the best-selling vehicles in the U.S. for the past 32 years; last year, Ford sold an F-series every 41 seconds.

Ford makes an estimated $10,000 profit on every F-series truck it sells. Michael Robinet, the managing director of IHS’s automotive group, says the trucks account for about a third of the company’s revenue in North America — $80 billion in 2012.

“Anytime you make a change with that vehicle, it’s got to be well thought out, because you are really playing with the crown jewels of that company,” Robinet said.

But Robinet said Ford had to make a change, since its trucks were heavier than competitors’, hurting their fuel efficiency. Ford, which has been selling F-series trucks since 1948, also has a deep understanding of its customers, he said. “They wouldn’t roll the dice on this if they felt it wasn’t going to work,” he said.

Competitors aren’t panicking, but they’re on notice. Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne, whose company makes Ram trucks, said he’ll be watching the Ford truck carefully. Still he believes cost is still a big barrier to the wider adoption of aluminum. “We’ve looked at it, but right now I can’t make the weight-to-cost-benefit analysis to work. But it may be my fault,” he said.

The 2015 F-150 goes on sale late this year. As for cost, Ford wouldn’t reveal prices, but its truck marketing chief Doug Scott says the F-series will stay within its current price range even though aluminum costs more than steel.

F-Series trucks now range from a starting price of $24,445 for a base model to $50,405 for a top-of-the-line Limited.

Aluminum is widely used on sporty, low-volume cars now, like the Tesla Model S electric sedan and the Land Rover Evoque. U.S. Postal Service trucks are also made of aluminum.

Up to now, Ford limited the aluminum on its trucks to the hoods and used steel for the rest.

Improvements in aluminum are helping to drive the change. Three years ago, for example, Alcoa — one of Ford’s suppliers for the F-150 — figured out a way to pre-treat aluminum so it would be more durable when parts are bonded together.

Mulally, a former Boeing executive who joined Ford in 2006, encouraged his team to think bigger. After all, it was Mulally who led early development of Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner, which replaced aluminum with even lighter-weight plastics to be more efficient and fly farther. “Everything becomes more efficient once you take the weight out,” Mulally says.

He expects aluminum to be used across Ford’s model lineup in the future.

The Chevrolet Corvette Stingray captured the North American Car of the Year award Monday at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit while the Chevrolet Silverado won Truck of the Year, giving General Motors a clean sweep of the prestigious awards.

The awards are coveted by automakers because they represent the collective assessment of 48 veteran journalists who have test-driven vehicles for years.

GM’s new CEO draws a crowd

Mary Barra, the first woman to lead a major global automaker, has a press-corps following like no other executive.

Barra, who officially becomes General Motors’ CEO on Wednesday, was pursued by about 100 reporters and photographers after GM swept car and truck of the year awards at the Detroit auto show Monday.

Two large bodyguards and public-relations handlers fended off the throng that chased her to the Cadillac exhibit, where she did a television interview.

During the pursuit, one cameraman tripped over a couch and another ran into a post.

A security guard said he hadn’t seen as large of a gaggle since former CEO Rick Wagoner was pursued as GM was headed toward bankruptcy in 2009.

Material from the Detroit Free Press is included in this report.

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