It’s Ford Motor Co.’s biggest bet in decades: an aluminum-sided F-150 that could set a new industry standard — or cost the company its pickup truck crown.
The automaker started production of the 2015 F-150 last week at its Dearborn Truck Plant, four miles from the company’s headquarters. It will arrive at U.S. dealerships next month. Ford thinks a truck that is lighter and more fuel efficient, but even more capable, will win buyers while its competitors struggle to catch up. Aluminum — which is lighter than steel but just as strong — isn’t new to the auto industry, but this is the first time it will cover the entire body of such a high-volume vehicle. Ford made 647,697 F-150 pickups at its two U.S. plants last year; that’s one every 49 seconds.
There are big risks, however. F-Series trucks have been the best-selling vehicles in the U.S. for 37 straight years; last year, Ford sold nearly 100,000 more full-size pickups than General Motors. Any quality problems, production hiccups or customer doubts about aluminum could slow sales and hurt Ford’s bottom line. Morgan Stanley estimates F-Series trucks account for 90 percent of Ford’s global automotive profit.
CEO Mark Fields told the AP he is confident Ford made the right decision. The new truck has been through 10 million miles of testing, which is more than any other vehicle in Ford’s history, he says.
Top managers agreed unanimously to switch to aluminum at a meeting in 2012.
“Were we recognizing that it was a risk? Sure,” Fields says. “It was a very calculated and informed risk that gave us the confidence that we were going to get this done.”
Truck buyers are among the most loyal in the auto market, and Ford can count on many of them. The company says more than 224,600 potential buyers have already asked for more details about the truck. Even some Ford loyalists have their doubts. Ginny Pruet, who runs a wedding rental business in Rockwall, Texas, recently traded her 2012 F-150 for the 2014 version because she wanted a backup camera.
Pruet, 54, has checked out the 2015 version at auto shows. She is impressed by the new truck’s bells and whistles, like the movable LED spotlights on the side mirrors, but she’s concerned that aluminum is untested and not worth the extra cost. Ford has raised the price of the base model by $395 to $26,615, including destination fees. A fancier King Ranch version costs $3,615 more.
Ford’s promise of better fuel economy also failed to sway Pruet, who is paying less than $3 a gallon for gasoline in her area. Fuel economy numbers won’t be released until later this month, but Ford has said the 2015 truck will have up to 20 percent better fuel economy than the outgoing model, which gets up to 23 mpg on the highway.
Ford has the disadvantage of introducing the truck as gas prices are hitting a four-year low. Fields says even when gas prices were $1.25, truck buyers still asked for better fuel economy.
“These vehicles are not just vehicles to our customers. They’re tools to help them do their job,” Fields says. “This thing has to deliver.”
Ford is spending more than $1 billion to retrofit its plants in Dearborn and Claycomo, Missouri, where the trucks are assembled, as well as the metal stamping plants that make the parts, says Bruce Hettle, Ford’s vice president of manufacturing, who spent three years planning the changeover.
Photo Credit: Ford