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Ford’s new aluminum F150 a radical change for pickup truck market

Shaves 700 lb. from the body to make it more fuel efficient and nimble.


Ford’s new F-150 lightens the load with aluminumn construction. Photo: Ford

DEARBORN, Mich. — Ford is unveiling a new F-150 with a body built almost entirely out of aluminum. 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 heavily reliant on steel.

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. And it sprang from a challenge by Ford’s CEO Alan Mulally to move beyond the traditional design for a full-size pickup.

Ninety-seven per cent of the body of the 2015 F-150 is aluminum, the most extensive use of aluminum ever in a truck. And this isn’t just any truck. F-Series trucks – which include the F-150 and heavier duty models like the F-250 – have been the bestselling vehicles in the US for the last 32 years; last year, Ford sold an F-Series every 41 seconds.

The key question for Ford, and the people who sell its trucks, is: Will customers embrace such a radical change? Dealers who have seen the new F-150 say they expect to encounter some skepticism, but the change had to be made.

Ford makes an estimated $10,000 profit on every F-Series truck it sells, making trucks a $7.6 billion profit centre in the US alone last year. And the company has had some quality issues with recent vehicle launches, adding to dealers’ worries. The 2013 Escape small SUV has been the subject of seven recalls.

The 2015 F-150 goes on sale late this year. While aluminum is more expensive that steel, Ford truck marketing chief Doug Scott says the F-Series will stay within the current price range. 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.

It’s difficult to calculate how much more aluminum costs, since there are different grades of aluminum and steel. Pete Reyes, the F-150’s chief engineer, said Ford expects to make up the premium by reducing its recycling costs, since there will be less metal to recycle, and by slimming down the engine and other components, since they won’t have to move so much weight.

New government fuel economy requirements, which mandate that automakers’ cars and trucks get a combined 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, are speeding the switch to aluminum. Chrysler’s Ram is currently the most fuel-efficient pickup, getting 25 mpg on the highway. The current F-150 gets as much as 23 mpg. Ford won’t say what the new truck’s fuel economy will be, but says it will trump the competition.

Improvements in aluminum are also driving the change. Three years ago, for example, Alcoa Inc. – one of Ford’s suppliers for the F-150 – figured out a way to pretreat aluminum so it would be more durable when parts are bonded together. Carmakers can now use three or four rivets to piece together parts that would have needed 10 rivets before, Alcoa spokesman Kevin Lowery said.

Ford is convinced truck buyers will accept the change. The company says the new truck will tow more and haul more, since the engine doesn’t have to account for so much weight. It can also accelerate and stop more quickly. Aluminum doesn’t rust, Ford says, and it’s more resistant to dents.

Reyes says the company planted prototype F-150s with three companies – in mining, construction and power – for two years without revealing they were aluminum. The companies didn’t notice a difference.

Ford will still have a tough time wresting customers from the competition, mainly Chevrolet, GMC and Ram, says Jesse Toprak, an independent auto industry consultant in Los Angeles.

“Movement between brands in the full-size truck segment is extremely minimal,” Toprak says. “It’s the strongest loyalty of any segment.”

Still, about 20% of pickup buyers traditionally are open to jumping from brand to brand based on features or price, Toprak said. The company with the newest, most advanced truck has the advantage in getting those customers, plus those who are new to the market, Toprak says.

Some steel remains on the truck. The frame beneath it is built primarily of high-strength steel, which Ford says will make it tougher and stiffer than the current frame. There’s also steel in the front dashboard, because Ford thought steel was better at dampening nose from the engine.

In all, a four-door F-150 has 660 pounds of aluminum, or nearly double the average use of aluminum per vehicle used now, according to Drive Aluminum, an aluminum industry web site. If the Ford truck is a success, use of aluminum could expand rapidly at the expense of steel.

Ford is expecting some issues with the design or the manufacturing as it makes the change, Mulally said. But the company is working hard to troubleshoot.