Ford bets big with its big truck

Ford’s F-Series pick-up, the best-selling vehicle in the U.S. and the primary profit driver for the automaker, is getting a dramatic makeover that could have major implications for Ford and the auto industry.

The new 2015 F-150 will feature a lighter, more fuel efficient aluminum body and a new V-6 EcoBoost engine that will combine to give the Ford’s bread and butter truck substantially better mileage.

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Ford will not say how many miles-per-gallon owners of the new F-150 will see, but sources within Ford and in the industry say the target is 26 or 27 MPG.

That would be a jump of 15-20 percent fuel efficiency compared to the current F-150 which gets 23 MPG.

“This is big deal,” said Matt Stover, analyst with Guggenheim Partners. “If Ford is able to deliver on what’s promised, it would be huge. The question is whether this truck will deliver.”

Ford’s unveiling of the new F-150 is a highlight of the North American International Auto Show which kicks off Monday in Detroit.

Aluminum body a bold move

Ford has been working on the new aluminum F-150 for several years. Due to the differences in the composition of steel and aluminum, a major focus in the development of the new truck has been making sure the new aluminum body panels have the quality and durability F-Series owners will expect.

“F-150 is well-known for being ‘Built Ford Tough’,” said Mark Fields, Ford Motor Company chief operating officer. “The all-new F-150 redefines the future of trucks.”

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The new truck will also mean retooling Ford’s two F-Series plants with new dies, robots and riveters. Anytime an automaker retools an assembly line it is a complex and time consuming process, but shifting to aluminum adds to that complexity.

As Ford transitions from building pickups primarily with high strength steel bodies to building trucks with aluminum alloy panels it will shut down its plants for several weeks later this year.

IHS Automotive estimates F-series production will drop up to 8.5 percent as the plants retool, and that’s assuming the transitions go smoothly.

“This is the biggest change in trucks since the late 90’s,” said Stover.



Ford’s big profit maker impacted

While Ford has yet to give a price for the new aluminum F-150, there is no doubt the automaker will charge a premium for it. After all, Ford will be selling a truck that gets substantially better mileage than other trucks which deliver 20-23 MPG.

However, raising the aluminum content in the F-150 will also be much more costly for Ford than sticking with high strength steel. In addition, raw material costs are far more volatile than the cost of steel.

“I think it’s going to be tough for Ford to charge a premium and make up for all of the additional costs,” said Stover.

Stover estimates Ford makes a profit of roughly $10,000 on every F-Series truck it sells. How much that drops due to the added costs going into the new F-Series is hard to predict, but Stover adds: “Look, Ford will still make a ton of dough on this truck.”

Will F-150 fans embrace the aluminum truck?

The big unknown behind the new aluminum F-150 is whether the millions of people, small business owners, and corporate fleet operators who have loyally bought the F-Series for years will embrace the new truck.

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The F-series has been the best-selling vehicle in the U.S. for 32 straight years, including in 2013 when Ford sold 763,402.

“I have a hard time finding another model as important as the F-Series is to Ford,” said Stover. “I don’t think the consumer cares whether the panels are aluminum or steel. What they care about is whether it will hold up.”

Ford knows there will be questions about the new F-150 being durable enough. It says the truck has gone through extensive road tests in extreme conditions around the world, including a disguised version racing in the Baja 1000 race.

All told, by the time the new F-Series goes on sale in the fourth quarter of this year, Ford says it will have put the truck through 10 million miles of test driving.

—By CNBC’s Phil LeBeau. Follow him on Twitter @LeBeauCarNews.

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