The Ford F-150 pickup is America’s most popular vehicle, and it has been since the 1980s. When a vehicle is that in demand for that long, the safe route is not to mess with the formula too much. But mess with it Ford did, giving the load hauler a thorough makeover for 2015 with, as you’ve probably heard by now (and was reported here first), an aluminum body.
Was Ford crazy to mess with success? After all, this is the critical model for the company, with more than 500,000 (not a typo) sold already in 2014 at an average price of $39,000. Well over 30 million have been sold since the series went on sale in 1948, and more than 700,000 in 2013. That contrasts with sales of just over 400,000 Toyota Camrys, down the list as the top-selling car. If truck buyers prove fickle, maybe this was Ford’s folly, but in most ways the changes had to happen.
My 2014 Ford F-150 Tremor test truck is business-as-usual for the automaker, a steel-bodied big gun built Ford Tough and all that, with a weight of well over 5,000 pounds. It’s so big I climb onto it like a buckboard, and move warily around crowded parking lots. Thank goodness for the backup camera.
Thanks to smooth power (365 horsepower) and torque (420 foot pounds), plus great forward visibility, my F-150 is an excellent highway cruiser and load hauler (towing around 9,000 pounds).
With the 3.5-liter EcoBoost engine, the Tremor’s fuel economy is great for the model, even though it's only 18 mpg combined. With the optional 6.2-liter V-8, it drops down to just 13 mpg combined. The test truck is quick for such a heavy vehicle, six seconds to 60. The bottom line as tested is $42,605.
OK, that’s the state of the art in 2014, using a turbocharged six to extract every possible bit of performance and economy from a weighty chassis. But now imagine basically the same truck with an aluminum body on a largely high-strength steel frame, tested in a wind tunnel, with an all-hands-on-deck effort to cut weight and increase aerodynamic efficiency.
Remember that Ford has, by federal law, to reach a goal of 54.5 mpg fleet average by 2025. And with the F-150 having such a huge market share it’s a critical part of that effort. The 2015 F-150, without looking significantly different, loses a whopping 700 pounds, 450 in the cabin alone.
You won’t be able to get a hybrid F-150, but for 2015 there will be a 2.7-liter EcoBoost engine with start-stop technology (shutting down at lights). Even with 325 horsepower on tap, the bottom line is fuel economy likely to clock in somewhere at least close to 30 mpg on the highway. In such a big work truck, with no significant loss of utility, that’s a minor miracle.
It’s all good, right? Not necessarily. Truck buyers are traditional, and given the choice between an untested aluminum-bodied Ford vs. a trusty steel Ram or Chevy they may opt for the latter. In fact, the newly revitalized Ram has indeed been capturing some of Ford's market share. And some prospective buyers have heard horror stories—for instance, Bloomberg estimates that less than 10 percent of America’s body shops are currently equipped to repair aluminum.
But c’mon, think this through. How many repair shops are going to want to turn away F-150 trucks? They’ve got their staff in aluminum school right now. Ford also estimates that insurance premiums on the new trucks will be 10 percent higher, but I submit that’s likely a short-term phenomenon also. Why? Because it will quickly become apparent that body shops can repair them, and without a steep premium over steel vehicles.
I’m bullish on the new F-150. If it can deliver 30 mpg with something like the usability of workhorse capability of the truck I’m now testing, Ford will have a huge winner on its hands. And it will retain that bestseller title. Here's a closer look at the wind tunnel testing: