Ford's weight- and fuel-saving F-150 pickup is an Auto Show star

The 2015 Ford F-150 . Its aluminum cab and cargo bed are designed to reduce weight and save fuel. "The redesign is a brave move . . . and a risky one," said one observer. MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff
The 2015 Ford F-150 . Its aluminum cab and cargo bed are designed to reduce weight and save fuel. "The redesign is a brave move . . . and a risky one," said one observer. MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff
Posted: February 10, 2014

The star of the Philadelphia Auto Show, which runs through next Sunday at the Convention Center, is not some sex object like the new Corvette Stingray convertible.

Rather, it is a beast of burden, a practical hauler, a vehicular tool called the 2015 Ford F-150 pickup truck.

This radically redesigned full-size pickup - the first ever to be built with a weight- and, hence, fuel-saving aluminum cab and cargo bed - is a multibillion-dollar corporate gamble that gets star billing because of the F-150's immense popularity and importance.

It sold 763,402 copies in 2013, making it America's best-selling vehicle for the last 32 years.

The F-150 is also a very profitable product. It accounts for 35 percent of Ford's revenue, according to market analysts.

The jury will remain out on the new truck's acceptance until after its showroom debut later this year, but its dramatic departure from pickup dogma suggests some obvious pluses and some possible minuses.

The essential goal of the truck's breakthrough redesign was to improve fuel economy to best in class, which will be accomplished largely through weight-shaving. The use of aluminum in the cab and bed takes 450 pounds out of the truck. The weight-whittling accomplished by using high-strength steel in the frame (the stronger the steel, the less you need) and aluminum in the engines and suspensions boost the savings to as much as 700 pounds, depending on the model.

The payoff is fairly dramatic. When the weight reduction is combined with a new, 2.7-liter direct-injected, turbocharged EcoBoost V-6, Ford thinks the F-150 will obtain an EPA highway rating of nearly 30 miles per gallon. That's almost 5 m.p.g. better than the current champion, the 2014 Ram 1500 HFE, and 7 m.p.g. better than the 2014 F-150.

The economies derived from using aluminum and other novel technologies would seem to arrive with costs and risks.

"The redesign is a brave move . . . and a risky one," said Joseph Phillippi, the president of Auto Trends Consulting.

And it will add cost, he added.

"You have an all-new truck with all-new technologies, and a bill of materials considerably more expensive. The material costs for the body and frame probably will go up $1,000."

The new truck has also meant several billion in engineering and retooling expense, as well as the additional material and manufacturing expenses associated with substituting aluminum for steel.

Despite the increased costs, Douglas W. Scott, Ford Truck Group marketing manager, insisted the new truck's pricing would remain about the same.

"The current F-150 ranges from $24,000 to $50,000," he said. "Our intention is to cover the same price range."

Another issue raised by the aluminum cab and bed is how it will sit with a rather traditional base of buyers long accustomed to steel's ruggedness.

"We've done a lot of homework and we've found that 80 percent of our customer base understands that aluminum has strength as well as being weight-saving," Scott said. "Most people get it."

It's also true that the remaining 20 percent apparently aren't so sure.

"That means that 140,000 are skeptical," Phillippi said. "That's a lot of skepticism."

While there may be some discontent in the market, Ford maintains the new truck is the strongest, most durable F-150 ever. The company says the aluminum alloys employed in the cab and bed are very strong and more dent- and corrosion-resistant than steel, adding that the high-strength steels and design employed in the frame make it even stronger than its predecessor.

To make its case for toughness and durability, Ford said it entered a disguised 2015 F-150 in a brutal off-road race called the Baja 1000. It reportedly completed the 883-mile course while some purpose-built racers did not.

That Baja truck was powered by the new 2.7-liter EcoBoost V-6, the leading gas miser in an available engine quartet that includes a base 3.7-liter V-6, a 5-liter V-8 and a 3.5-liter EcoBoost V-6, all of them buttoned to a six-speed automatic gearbox.

Ford is peddling the new F-150 as smart as well as tough, and will make 11 class-exclusive features available. Scott mentioned some of the important ones:

A 360-degree driver view, courtesy of cameras at the front and back of the truck, as well as in the side mirrors. The resultant bird's-eye view of the vehicle helps the driver park and maneuver in tight spots and on narrow trails.

Higher-wattage power outlets (up from 150 to 400), which allow you to do things like charge power tool batteries.

LED spotlights. "We added LED spotlights to the exterior mirrors so you could focus on a job or campsite," Scott explained.

Remote tailgate release. This feature allows you to lock or open the tailgate with the entry/ignition fob. The tailgate can be dropped hands-free.

Integrated cargo ramps. These ramps permit easy loading of things like mowers and motorcycles, then store on the side of the cargo bed.

The safety menu for the new truck also includes first-ever big-pickup features. The list includes technologies already familiar to many car owners, like adaptive cruise control, a lane-keeping system, and blind-spot alert.

The new F-150 also will be available with second-row inflatable seat belts, which work like regular seat belts but include a tubular, integral air bag that inflates upon impact. This inflated belt dissipates the crash force by distributing the energy over a larger area of the passenger's chest.

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