Aluminum body Ford F150 marks a big shift to aluminum and lightweight cars and trucks

The 2015 Ford F150 debuted Monday with an aluminum body at the Detroit Auto Show, weighing 700 pounds less than the old one. This would be 12% lower weight. Ford Chief Operating Officer Mark Fields acknowledged that working with aluminum was more expensive than steel.

Ford earns about $11,000 on a pickup truck sale compared with $5,000 for a car. The F-Series trucks account for nearly half of Ford’s North American profits, he said, and the company can’t afford a misfire.

Ford lent out the aluminum body F150 to test how lightweight aluminum alloys would hold up on the job, at a gold mine, an energy utility and a construction firm. They lent out the trucks in a test program — without telling the companies what was being tested. Ford eventually took some of the trucks back and tore them apart, looking to see how they withstood the rigors of the rugged worksites. It then made some changes, such as making the inner surface of the tailgate thicker for extra protection.

Ford has sold 33 million F-Series trucks since 1948, and at least 11 million are still on the road, the company said. In 2013, Ford sold 763,000 F150 trucks in the U.S.

Ford increased the amount of high-strength steel in the frame, from 23% to 77%, to give the vehicle rigidity and improve its handling.

The 6.2-liter V-8 found in the Raptor is no more. But, with the weight reduction, the 3.5-liter motor and its 420 pound-feet of torque should offer comparable performance to the mammoth V-8. Finally, a new 2.7-liter EcoBoost motor with stop/start technology joins the fray, slotting in between the base V-6 and V-8 models.

Ninety-seven percent of the body of the 2015 F-150 is aluminum, the most extensive use of aluminum ever in a truck.

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 $24,445 for a base model to $50,405 for a top-of-the-line Limited.

New government fuel economy requirements, which mandate that automakers’ cars and trucks get a combined 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, are speeding the switch to aluminum. Chrysler’s Ram is currently the most fuel-efficient pickup, getting 25 mpg on the highway. The current F-150 gets as much as 23 mpg. Ford won’t say what the new truck’s fuel economy will be, but says it will trump the competition.

The 2014 F150 could get 16 city and 23 mpg highway (best mileage model) The new 2015 F150 could get 18 mpg city and 28 mpg highway with the lightweight and smaller engines.

Improvements in aluminum are also driving the change. Three years ago, for example, Alcoa Inc. — one of Ford’s suppliers for the F-150 — figured out a way to pretreat aluminum so it would be more durable when parts are bonded together. Carmakers can now use three or four rivets to piece together parts that would have needed 10 rivets before, Alcoa spokesman Kevin Lowery said.

In 2010, a profitable Ford gave the green light to an all-aluminum truck. CEO Alan Mulally, a former Boeing Co. executive who joined Ford in 2006, encouraged his team to think bigger. After all, it was Mulally who led early development of Boeing’s Dreamliner, which replaced aluminum with even lighter-weight plastics to be more efficient and fly further.

“Everything becomes more efficient once you take the weight out,” Mulally says. He expects aluminum to be used across Ford’s model lineup in the future.

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