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Ford introduces new aluminum F-150

DEARBORN--Michigan Ford pickups have been doing the country's work for 66 years. They've hauled grain, towed logs and plowed snow. They've cleared debris after tornadoes and pulled floats in the Rose Bowl parade.

They've shouldered those loads with parts forged from steel. Until now.

On Monday, Ford unveils a new F-150 with a body built almost entirely out of aluminum. The lighter material shaves as much as318 kilograms off the 2,268-kilogram truck, a revolutionary change for a vehicle known for its heft and an industry still heavily reliant on steel. The truck is Ford's response to small-business owners' desire for a more fuel-efficient and nimble truck — and stricter government requirements on fuel economy. And 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.

Ninety-seven percent of the body of the 2015 F-150 is aluminum, the most extensive use of aluminum ever in a truck. And this isn't just any truck. 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.

The key question for Ford, and the people who sell its trucks, is: Will customers embrace such a radical change? Dealers who have seen the new F-150 say they expect to encounter some skepticism, but the change had to be made.

“We're aggressive, stretching the envelope,” said Sam Pack, owner of four Ford dealerships in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. “I think you have to do that. If you don't, then you get into that predicament of being a 'me too' vehicle.”

Still, it's a big risk. Ford makes an estimated US$10,000 profit on every F-Series truck it sells, making trucks a US$7.6 billion profit center in the U.S. alone last year. And the company has had some quality issues with recent vehicle launches, adding to dealers' worries. The 2013 Escape small SUV has been the subject of seven recalls.

The 2015 F-150 goes on sale late this year. While aluminum is more expensive that steel, Ford truck marketing chief Doug Scott says the F-Series will stay within the current price range. F-Series trucks now range from a starting price of US$24,445 for a base model to US$50,405 for a top-of-the-line Limited.

It's difficult to calculate how much more aluminum costs, since there are different grades of aluminum and steel. 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 was used on cars even before the first F-Series went on sale in 1948. It's 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.

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