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Set for Detroit Debut: Ford's Aluminum F-150

While most major automakers have already dropped broad hints about what they’ll reveal at next month's Detroit auto show, Ford has been unusually quiet about its plans for the annual show’s opening debut. But the likely unveiling is expected to be a big one: an all-new version of the maker’s best-selling truck, the F-150.
NBC NEWS -- While most major automakers have already dropped broad hints about what they’ll reveal at next month's Detroit auto show, Ford has been unusually quiet about its plans for the annual show’s opening debut. But the likely unveiling is expected to be a big one: an all-new version of the maker’s best-selling truck, the F-150.

And it’s not just a restyled pickup with a few more features. The 2015 Ford F-Series is expected to mark a dramatic shift in a market segment that’s come roaring back over the last 12 months, with the Detroit maker opting for a new, aluminum-intensive design that should shed hundreds of pounds compared to the outgoing pickup – in the process improving fuel consumption by perhaps 5 miles per gallon.

That said, the automaker could face a serious challenge with a redesign of what has long been America's best-selling vehicle. Even though buyers in every segment of the market are demanding better mileage, the question is whether the generally more conservative buyers in the pickup segment will feel comfortable with this major shift from rugged, time-tested steel. Ford will have to convince potential buyers they’ll not only save fuel but also get a durable truck that won’t offset those savings with higher maintenance costs.

Ford gave a hint of what was coming during the 2013 North American International Auto Show when it revealed the Atlas Concept.

“Part of our strategy is to put all our vehicles on a diet,” Ford Chief Operating Officer Mark Fields told TheDetroitBureau.com, noting the goal is to remove anywhere from 250 to 750 pounds from its various products. Insiders reveal the higher figure was the target for the F-Series remake, though exactly how successful Ford was in reaching that goal remains to be seen.

The Detroit maker is by no means the only manufacturer struggling to cut weight. The rough rule of thumb is that for every 100 pounds of mass taken out of a vehicle, fuel economy rises by about a mile per gallon. And that’s something that could prove critical in meeting the tough new federal mileage mandates that go into effect in 2016 and then in 2025.

Curbing weight is complicated by other regulatory changes, especially in the form of tougher crash standards that generally mean adding more metal to protect passengers. And consumers are also driving the industry in the opposite direction, demanding more and more content on the vehicles they buy.

Another challenge is cost. Steel may be heavy but it's strong and relatively cheap when compared to aluminum and even more exotic carbon fiber. Nonetheless, manufacturers are starting to migrate to new materials at a quickening pace, as Ford’s new F-Series will demonstrate to the world.

But perhaps the biggest obstacle Ford could face is consumer resistance. The maker shouldn’t have a problem pitching the benefits of a lighter, more fuel-efficient truck. But pickup buyers are, on the whole, a cautious lot, folks who want to be sure that their vehicles will keep running no matter what. And with a large share of trucks sold to fleet customers, operating costs are closely scrutinized.

Ford will have to convince potential shoppers that the new F-Series is at least as rugged and reliable as the truck it replaces. “Ford’s sales job will be considerable,” notes a story by Bloomberg News Service, adding that the maker and its materials supplier Alcoa will make extensive use of aluminum at Ford’s auto show stand to help visitors feel more comfortable with the metal.

Despite such concerns, industry analysts note that other manufacturers have successfully made the jump from steel to aluminum in recent years. Most of the products now sold by Jaguar and Audi, for example, use aluminum-intensive designs.

But an even better comparison can be made to Land Rover, the British manufacturer known for its go-anywhere sport-utility vehicles. With the 2013 Range Rover and this year’s Range Rover Sport, the company also adopted an aluminum body and frame, saving as much as 800 pounds in the process. And, if anything, Land Rover claims that the new vehicles have improved their legendary off-road capabilities.

Can Ford convince pickup buyers? If it does, the significant improvement in mileage could prove to be a major advantage over well-reviewed competitors like the all-new Chevrolet Silverado and the Ram 1500 pickup recently named Motor Trend’s Truck of the Year. Ford could force its competitors to quickly redesign their own vehicles to catch up.

If not, the F-Series could wind up slipping from its exalted perch as not only the best-selling truck in America but the best-selling vehicle overall for the past three decades.

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