By Christopher A. Sawyer
There has been a lot of talk about Ford’s next generation F-150, especially since the Wall Street Journal ran a story last year. In it the paper reported that the next F-150 would have an aluminum body on a steel frame, which drew denials from Ford. The upshot of the piece was that Ford, which has said on many occasions that its next generation of vehicles would be substantially lighter than the current generation, would have to use the lightweight alloy as it is the most cost-effective way to eliminate weight and improve fuel economy. And though it requires new equipment and some new techniques, stamping out parts or repairing them in the field is not dissimilar to working with steel.
It’s a logical conclusion, and one that easily could be confirmed by watching the futures market for aluminum. After all, if a car company is going to switch its highest volume vehicle over to a material notorious for wild price swings, it had better line up its supply and pricing well ahead of production. Especially when, as one materials expert told me, building every F-150 body (not just the exterior panels) out of aluminum would take nearly all of the virgin aluminum sheet in the world for one year.
Of course, aluminum — like steel — is recyclable, and locking up a supply of recycled sheet would greatly reduce the demand for virgin material. It also would reduce the price per pound dramatically. And, from the look of Ford’s Atlas Concept, the next F-150 isn’t going to be a downsized shrinking violet.
That doesn’t mean the unitized body fitted to a separate steel frame doesn’t have to be made entirely out of aluminum, however. By using lighter, stronger grades of steel in the frame and body, Ford could reduce the amount of aluminum it needs to reach its weight targets. And the alloy also can be used in suspension and other pieces through the vehicle, along with magnesium and other materials. This is not a one-size-fits-all deal. There’s more to the solution that just aluminum.
There’s also more to the future than just the F-150.
Some have questioned Ford’s unwillingness to sell its so-called global Ranger in the U.S. This 7/8-scale pickup is nearly the same size as the F-150, considerably lighter, and powered by smaller engines. Building and selling it everywhere but here would let Ford work out the kinks before it introduced generation 1.5 as the new F-100. And there would be less need to go all “radical” in terms of materials on the full-size F-150.
There’s only one problem with that. There would have to be a significant price difference between Ranger 1.5 and the next F-150 for buyers to flock to it. If given the choice of two similar products, they’ll opt for the full-fat, full-feature real thing or nothing at all. Also, the Ranger in its current guise costs Ford about the same to build as the full-size truck. So much for that idea.
Another possibility is building a F-100 without a separate frame. This unit-body pickup would be substantially lighter than the F-150, and less costly. It could do everything the lower end of the F-150 lineup does, but with better fuel economy. Plus, it could be powered by the 2.0-liter EcoBoost engine, with a naturally aspirated V6 as the standard motor. No need for a V8 here. There’s only one problem. The F-150 buyer wants a work truck, something that can be beaten on and come back for more. It has to tow, haul and handle tough assignments, something that can be a problem with a unit-body truck with integral bed. So that idea won’t work, either.
This leaves us with a solution that meets two problems Ford faces. On the one hand, it has to reduce the weight of its bread-and-butter pickup without alienating the customer or ratcheting up the cost of the F-150. Second, there is a growing group of buyers who would like the utility of a pickup, but don’t need its full size and capability. This market might have been satisfied by a new American Ranger small pickup, but it went away as the market for small pickups shrank and the price of entry-level full-size pickups declined. Building a new small pickup to replace it would have cost Ford more than it would have gained from the sale of the truck, so it let the new American Ranger die.
After a few false starts, however, Dearborn has realized that this buyer doesn’t need a body-on-frame trucklet. A unit-body truck would do just fine. Also, the market has changed. There are a significant number of buyers who want the utility of a truck, but not the size or cost — especially with $4/gallon fuel. It is a bimodal market that trends both young and older, with a strong central streak of men and women with families populated by teenage children. Giving these buyers a smaller, lighter, more fuel-efficient pickup with sporty styling and unique features would take a lot of pressure off the lower end of the F-150 lineup, and give Ford the opportunity to satisfy those buyers with an even more focused pickup. Also, this strategy would reduce the scope of customers the F-150 would have to satisfy, and allow engineers to rationalize the number of body styles, cabs, bed lengths, etc. offered. As a result, through this rationalization the F-150 could absorb some of the extra cost aluminum would bring, and keep the its price closer to that of a conventional truck with poorer fuel economy. Imagine that ad campaign.
What’s missed in all of this is that Honda had it right with its unit-body Ridgeline pickup. That vehicle’s big flaws were that it was out ahead of the market, it didn’t embody Honda’s innovative take on solving a problem, and it was designed and pitched as an alternative to a conventional pickup, which it wasn’t. What Honda needed was a vehicle that cast fresh eyes on the needs and desires of suburban pickup truck owners, and wrapped the result in a long heritage of pickup truck dominance; something Honda doesn’t have. Ford, however, does, and its two-pronged attack on the pickup market, beginning with the 2015 introduction of the next F-150, might just change the way we view pickups. The next American Ranger, for want of a better descriptor, won’t be a low-cost, dirt-cheap, miniaturized conventional pickup as before. I predict that, in light of Ford’s moves in the car market, will be small, light, fast and capable with unique styling, seating for four/five, car-like amenities, four-cylinder power, and a reconfigurable bed. Also, while it may share hard points, components and systems with the Fusion/Mondeo, it won’t just drop a pickup body on a sedan chassis. It will be engineered for the task. Finally, this small pickup will not only satisfy the needs of suburban Americans and upscale businesses that need a truck but can do without a full-size, it also will appeal to those buyers in Europe and elsewhere who are just now being seduced by the idea of the pickup lifestyle. People who, 20 years ago, found themselves mesmerized by vehicles they never before would have considered owning: SUVs.