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Ford worked on aluminum prototypes for the F-150 for years before bringing it to the public. (Ford)
Ford worked on aluminum prototypes for the F-150 for years before bringing it to the public. (Ford)

Road Rush

Is Ford's new F-150 a game changer? Add to ...

At the Detroit car show, there was an unexpected belle of the ball – a pickup truck. Seriously. In a room packed with supermodel exotics, science-project hybrids and dreamy concept cars, Ford’s new F-150 pickup stole the limelight.

The F-150 had a trick up its sleeve – it was made from aluminum, a material you expect to see in a jetliner or a race car, not a vehicle designed to haul cinder blocks and fencing tools. An aluminum pickup is one of those Big Ideas that gets everyone’s attention, and Detroit demonstrated its intellectual impact – the F-150 basked in a white-hot corona of TV lights, the Angelina Jolie of the car show. How often do you see a pickup truck getting live hits on Turkish television and the BBC?

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But now comes the question that gets asked in the cold, hard light of day – will anyone buy an aluminum F-150?

On the face of it, a high-tech pickup truck is a dicey proposition. Truck buyers place a premium on traditional values and proven technology. Ford’s competitors (most notably GM and Chrysler) are hoping that buyers will see aluminum as an untested material, and turn to them for a truck made of time-tested steel. “They don’t make battleships out of aluminum,” said a Chrysler rep. “Steel is real.”

His thinking was echoed by GMC. Last week, the company sent out a Tweet with a not-so-subliminal message: “Submarines are built from tough rolled steel. So is the Sierra truck bed.”

But the psychology of the pickup truck buyer is more complex. In some respects, pickup buyers conform to the image you may have in mind: they have a strong preference for American products, and are brand loyal, buying a long series of vehicles from the same manufacturer.

Pickup buyers can also be finicky about change – when GM introduced cylinder deactivation last year, for example, it ran into customer resistance. A marketing campaign turned things around, but as industry analyst Dennis DesRosiers points out, advanced technology involves uncertainty: “Buyers aren’t always prepared to accept change,” he says.

The modern pickup truck bridges two worlds. On the one hand, it is a rudimentary tool, carrying jackhammers, fence posts and loads of gravel for contractors and ranchers. But on the other, it is an image-enhancement device, purchased by would-be cowboys and downtown yuppies looking for blue-collar cred. And the two markets are intertwined – should the aluminum F-150 be rejected by the ranchers and contractors, it will lose the rawboned pedigree that sells it to the urban crowd.

The risks of being an ahead-of-the-curve innovator have been illustrated again and again. You may recall the Apple Newton, the iPad’s failed predecessor. What about the Segway, the brilliant, computer-controlled machine that was supposed to be the future of transportation, but wasn’t?

And yet, as history has shown, the market will embrace innovation when it arrives at the right time (consider the iPhone). And so it is with trucks – when Ford replaced its traditional V-8 motor with a turbocharged EcoBoost six-cylinder three years ago, the new motor was a hit. (So much for the stereotype of the red necked, tobacco-chewing buyer who had to have a V-8 engine and a gun rack.)

The success of the EcoBoost is easy to understand – it uses less fuel, and it makes plenty of power. (I tested the V-8 and V-6 versions of the F-150 back to back, and came away converted – the V-6 was a winner.)

So will the aluminum truck win over buyers? To gauge its appeal, I called up some hardcore pickup truck users. Among them was my friend, Matt Taber, who lives in rural Georgia, and has owned a long list of trucks (all of them made from steel, needless to say).

Matt loved the idea of the aluminum truck: “It’s a smart way to go,” he said. “Less weight, no rust. I don’t see a downside.”

I believe that Matt’s way of thinking will prevail, and make the new F-150 a game changer. An aluminum truck makes a lot of sense. Although Ford hasn’t released final numbers, the aluminum F-150 will weigh about 700 pounds less than its steel predecessor – a reduction of 15 to 20 per cent.

That weight reduction will change a lot of things. The engine can be smaller. Fuel economy will be better. Handling will be improved. Tires will last longer. The tailgate will be easier to lift. And so on.

Although competitors suggest that the aluminum truck will be less durable than steel, I see this as a canard. Aluminum is well proven in the transportation world – millions of airplanes have been made from it, and it is now used in countless cars. Making an entire truck body out of aluminum isn’t a big stretch.

Ford has been experimenting with aluminum for years, and has tested the durability of the F-150’s aluminum body by building a series of prototype trucks that have been used by industrial firms in the U.S. (to make the experiment more valid, the companies weren’t told that their new trucks were aluminum instead of steel.)

For Ford, the aluminum F-150 is a natural. Government fuel economy regulations demand efficiency improvement. And Fords’ CEO, Alan Mulally, is a former Boeing engineer – he understands aluminum, and sees it as the way forward in the truck market. As he told the Associated Press: “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.”

And after all – who else managed to make a pickup truck the star of an international car show?

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