Ford bets on aluminium to lift F-150 truck

Ford took maybe the most daring step in the history of the conservative domestic pickup truck industry when it pulled the cover off a lightweight, aluminium-bodied F-150 at the 2014 Detroit auto show. The nearly heretical act represents a significant risk in pursuit of improved fuel economy.

The pickup market values toughness, durability and capability above factors such as efficiency, but US government regulations will eventually demand that such trucks average 30mpg on the highway.

Rather than wait until then, Ford has pre-empted the requirement with a new F-150 that weighs 700lbs less than the outgoing truck. Buyers will be attracted by the new F-150's increased capability more than its better gas mileage, said Doug Scott, Ford truck group marketing manager.

"What a truck customer is interested in is capability," he said on 13 January, at the truck’s unveiling. "They consider [a truck] to be another tool."

Remarkably, this new tool, with its new technology and materials, will sell in the same price range as the current truck when it arrives in showrooms in the fourth quarter this year, Scott said. While Ford has not disclosed all specifics, the new truck's lighter weight will let it carry and tow more weight than the current model, while returning better fuel economy.

The F-150 will be powered by a slate of four gasoline engines, starting with an all-new 3.5-litre V6 that will deliver more power while consuming less fuel than today's 3.7-litre base engine, according to the company. From there, the company will offer an all-new turbocharged 2.7-litre EcoBoost V6 engine, the carryover 5-litre V8 and the carryover 3.5-litre EcoBoost V6.

The F-150 boasts an array of new features intended to bolster its tool-like role in customers' lives, including a 360-degree camera, a remotely locking and unlocking tailgate, loading ramps that latch into the inside of the bed, a trailer connection module that monitors the trailer's lights and a 400w AC power outlet with enough juice to power cordless tool chargers. Never mind the aluminium body panels’ greater resistance to dents and dings than their steel equivalents.

These and other new gadgets extend the F-150's utility to buyers, which is why they will embrace it, according to Scott. He said he expects about 15% of buyers to opt for the base engine, with the remaining 85% divided evenly among the remaining three engines.

The company will switch over production to the new truck first at its Michigan plant, followed by the Kansas City plant, so the current model will be sit alongside the new product or a period – a move that might ease customers towards the idea of a truck with aluminium body panels.

But Ford notes that F-150 buyers are among the most loyal in any business, a relationship it is loath to abuse. Buyers may adopt the truck for its tool-like properties, Ford spokespeople said, but they’ll stick around for its utility.