The vehicle that is vital to the financial health of Ford Motor Co. is getting an extreme makeover – with an all-aluminum body that sheds hundreds of kilograms of weight – as the auto maker and its rivals race to meet new fuel economy standards.
Ford will unveil the next generation of its F-150 pickup truck on Monday at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, bidding to set a new standard that will keep its vehicle at the forefront of the competition for one of the most profitable segments of the vehicle market.
The new truck represents considerably more than just a typical vehicle redesign, both in the scope of what Ford designers and engineers are changing and how vital the F-Series is to the second-largest Detroit auto maker.
The F-Series is the best-selling vehicle in both the Canadian and U.S. markets and its sales generate about 20 per cent of Ford's worldwide annual revenue of about $150-billion (U.S.).
"This is a big deal," said Dick Schulz, who heads the automotive materials practice for consulting firm Ducker Worldwide LLC. "They think this solidifies the position of that truck for another 30 years."
It's the first time aluminum has been used to make most of the body of a full-sized pickup truck. That is a weight saving in itself because aluminum is lighter than steel. The new design also permits weight savings elsewhere on the vehicle because other components such as springs and the steel frame that supports the aluminum box can be lighter.
The redesigned truck will be about 318 kilograms lighter than the 2,125-kg weight of the current base model. A lighter vehicle takes less energy to move, so a new, fuel-efficient 2.7-litre engine will be offered.
Max Farley, truck marketing manager of Ford Motor Co. of Canada Ltd., said in an interview that the new F-Series will be the most fuel-efficient yet. Otherwise, though, consumers won't notice a difference between steel and aluminum, he added.
"At the end of the day, the customer is looking for a durable, capable and fuel-efficient vehicle. The material itself isn't as important as those factors."
Ford is also touting a new 360-degree camera system on the vehicle that will help drivers park and drive narrow trails and roads, as well as a remote tailgate that can be lowered and raised with the key fob.
The new F-Series is likely to be the most important new product to be unveiled at the show, which comes after a strong year of recovery for the U.S. auto market from the depths of the recession that sent Chrysler Group LLC and General Motors Co. into Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
U.S. auto sales rose 8 per cent last year to 15.58 million, and are forecast to jump to prerecession levels of about 16 million annually within the next two years.
But looming within sight are new regulations that require auto makers to double the fuel economy of their vehicles from 2011 levels by 2025.
That offers a big opportunity for lighter weight materials makers.
"This is a broad-based change happening in the industry," Klaus Kleinfeld, chief executive officer of Alcoa Inc., said during the aluminum maker's fourth-quarter financial results conference call last Thursday. "It's a real massive change over to lightweighting going on here in high-volume segments."
There were about 6.5 kg of aluminum in body panels in the average North American vehicle in 2012. Alcoa projects that to increased to 25 kg next year and 62 kg by 2025.
Novelis Inc., another aluminum maker, said last month it will spend $205-million at plants in Oswego, N.Y., and Europe to increase production of the material for the auto industry to 900,000 tons a year, three times what it was in 2012.
Novelis expects global demand for aluminum sheet to grow by more than 30 per cent annually through the end of the decade.
"It's going to put a dent in the steel guys, but this is not something that's going to proliferate all over the world," Mr. Schulz said. "We have a unique thing in America; we make 2.5 million pick-up trucks. Nobody else does.
BY THE NUMBERS: THE FORD F-SERIES
763,402 – Number of F-Series trucks sold in the U.S. market last year (29.5 per cent of all Ford's U.S. vehicle sales)
122,235 – Number sold in Canada last year (43 per cent of Ford's Canadian sales volume)
42 years – How long the F-Series has been the best-selling vehicle in Canada
32 years – How long it has been the best-selling vehicle in the U.S.
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