AP Auto Writers
DETROIT (AP) -- Some call it a game-changer. Some just shake their heads. Either way, Ford's new aluminum-clad F-150 is such a radical departure from past pickup trucks that it dominated talk at the opening of the Detroit auto show.
Ford Motor Co. unveiled the 2015 F-150, whose body is 97-percent aluminum, on Monday. The lighter material shaves as much as 700 pounds off the 5,000-pound truck, a revolutionary change for a vehicle known for its heft and an industry still reliant on steel. No other vehicle on the market contains this much aluminum.
"It's a landmark moment for the full-size pickup truck," said Jack Nerad, editorial director for Kelley Blue Book.
The change is Ford's response to small-business owners' desire for a more fuel-efficient and nimble truck -- and stricter government requirements on fuel economy. It sprang from a challenge by Ford's CEO to move beyond the traditional design for a full-size pickup.
"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," Chief Executive Alan Mulally told The Associated Press in a recent interview.
But it remains to be seen if customers will accept the change.
"Trucks are put to such hard use. They take bangs and dings and a lot of hard use," Nerad said. "We'll see how the use of lightweight aluminum plays out in the field."
Ford is taking a big risk. F-Series trucks -- which include the F-150 and heavier duty models like the F-250 -- have been the best-selling vehicles in the U.S. for the last 32 years; last year, Ford sold an F-Series every 41 seconds. Ford makes an estimated $10,000 profit on every F-Series truck it sells. Michael Robinet, the managing director of IHS's automotive group, says the trucks account for about a third of the company's revenue in North America -- $80 billion in 2012.
"Anytime you make a change with that vehicle, it's got to be well thought out, because you are really playing with the crown jewels of that company," Robinet said.
But Robinet said Ford had to make a change, since its trucks were heavier than competitors', hurting their fuel efficiency. Ford, which has been selling F-Series trucks since 1948, also has a deep understanding of its customers, he said.
"They wouldn't roll the dice on this if they felt it wasn't going to work," he said.
Competitors aren't panicking, but they're on notice. Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne, whose company makes Ram trucks, said he'll be watching the Ford truck carefully. Still he believes cost is still a big barrier to the wider adoption of aluminum.
"We've looked at it, but right now I can't make the weight to cost benefit analysis to work. But it may be my fault," he said.
The 2015 F-150 goes on sale late this year. As for cost, Ford wouldn't reveal prices, but its truck marketing chief Doug Scott says the F-Series will stay within its current price range even though aluminum costs more than steel. F-Series trucks now range from a starting price of $24,445 for a base model to $50,405 for a top-of-the-line Limited.
Pete Reyes, the F-150's chief engineer, said Ford expects to make up the premium by reducing its recycling costs, since there will be less metal to recycle, and by slimming down the engine and other components, since they won't have to move so much weight.
Aluminum is widely used on sporty, low-volume cars now, like the Tesla Model S electric sedan and the Land Rover Evoque. U.S. Postal Service trucks are also made of aluminum.
Up to now, Ford limited the aluminum on its trucks to the hoods and used steel for the rest. Robinet says the new truck has 20 times more aluminum on it than most cars now, at more than 660 pounds.
The move is bad news for steel makers because it signals a broader move to lighter materials, said Jeff Schuster, senior vice president of auto sales forecasting for LMC Automotive, an industry consulting firm. Aluminum, carbon fiber and even plastics will change the conventional thinking that cars and trucks have to get smaller in order to meet government fuel economy standards that require the fleet to get 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, Schuster said.
"I think the industry is fighting back," he said. Ford won't say what the new truck's fuel economy will be, but it will likely beat Chrysler's Ram, the current leader at 25 mpg on the highway.