Ford’s switch to an aluminum body on the 2015 F-150 was revolutionary. The change, although costly, helped the automaker boost its share of the hugely profitable segment, post record transaction prices and increase its margin as America’s full-size pickup leader over Chevrolet and Ram.
Ford looked to be leading the way toward making aluminum the industry standard for automakers to shed weight and improve fuel economy to meet government targets.
But nobody followed.
When Chevrolet and Ram unveiled their next-generation pickups at the Detroit auto show, the mostly steel bodies and beds underscored the starkly different paths the Detroit 3 are taking for their most important vehicles.
“We don’t believe in it. We fundamentally don’t believe in it,” Alan Batey, General Motors’ North America president, told Automotive News about an all-aluminum pickup. He said the company analyzed the possibility of such a truck but decided against it.
“We look at everything,” Batey said. “Did we ever seriously consider it? No.”
The divergent strategies of the Detroit automakers, which account for 83 percent of U.S. light-duty pickup sales, go against the norm for the extremely competitive segment, in which big innovations by one company tend to quickly get adopted by the others.
“It’s not just different strategies,” said Stephanie Brinley, an analyst with IHS Markit. “It’s about strategies that play to your strengths.”
Ford, she said, needed to put its largest vehicles on a strict diet, and aluminum was the right choice for its needs at that time, helping the F-150 drop about 700 pounds.
The different paths were made possible by breakthroughs in materials by organizations such as the Steel Market Development Institute, which has worked with automakers, including the Detroit 3, for decades. The steel industry fought back hard after Ford decided to use aluminum on the F-150 and other automakers began talking up other alternative materials, such as carbon fiber and magnesium.
“Their focus the last several years has been on lightweighting,” said Jody Hall, vice president of the automotive market for the association of North American steel producers. “That’s when we’ve seen the most innovation from the steel industry.”
Hall argues that the most advanced steels for the auto industry are two to three times stronger than the highest-grade aluminum, which is why automakers continue to use steel for their pickup frames. In addition, lower gasoline prices have made fuel economy less of a concern for many pickup buyers than when Ford was working on the F-150’s redesign.
Ford says it has no regrets about switching to aluminum. In 2017, the F-series logged its 41st consecutive year as the nation’s best-selling pickup. It outsold the No. 2 Chevrolet Silverado by more than 300,000 vehicles, the largest gap ever between the two pickups, despite Chevrolet’s attack ads that tried to portray aluminum as weak.
“It’s been fantastic,” Brian Bell, Ford’s marketing manager for the F-150 and Ranger, said in an interview. “Everybody’s got a different strategy. They all look at their own programs in different ways. We think what we did has been the perfect choice for us.”
Sticking with steel
Chevrolet has aggressively criticized Ford’s use of aluminum — particularly in the bed of the F series — for several years. It continued needling its rival when unveiling the 2019 Silverado, which is up to 450 pounds lighter than the current version.
“Work comes first for truck buyers, and the working end of every pickup is the bed,” GM’s product chief, Mark Reuss, said at the Silverado’s Jan. 13 debut. “It’s like the head of a good hammer. It’s the end that does all the work and gets all of the abuse. I don’t think you’d get much work done with an aluminum hammer.”
The bed of the fourth-generation Silverado features a roll-formed, high-strength steel floor as part of the company’s “mixed materials strategy,” which included optimizing “every component for mass, durability, safety and function,” Reuss said. It’s an approach GM plans to apply across much of its lineup, not just on pickups.
Much of the weight savings came from the pickup’s frame and body. All exterior swing panels (the doors, hood and tailgate) are made of aluminum, while fixed panels (the fenders, roof and bed) are steel.
The underlying safety cage uses seven grades of steel, each tailored for the specific application, while 80 percent of the frame is made of high-strength steel, 2 to 5 millimeters thick.
Fiat–Chrysler Automobiles, meanwhile, used mainly steel, with a “selective” mix of aluminum and composites on the 2019 Ram 1500.
The company said it used aluminum “not just where possible but where practical.” It also made greater use of composites, which helped shed hundreds of pounds compared with the current generation.
Ram, according to brand chief Mike Manley, used 54 percent high-strength steel in the cab and bed and 98 percent in the frame.
“That results in a Ram truck that is stronger than ever, yet still 255 pounds lighter,” Manley said after revealing the pickup Monday, Jan. 15.
Chevrolet’s public assault on Ford’s use of aluminum started two years ago, with a marketing campaign that included commercials showing the F-150’s bed being easily punctured by a metal toolbox and concrete blocks.
“We just don’t believe an aluminum bed is the right way to achieve reliability and durability,” Batey said last week. He added, when Ford announced the aluminum truck, “the bottom line is you didn’t see the fuel economy benefits that a lot of people were speculating you would see.”
GM expects its next-gen pickups, which go on sale this year, to be “more profitable” than the current generation, which the company said has contributed to an 80 percent increase in the profitability of the current truck platform since its 2013 introduction.
All in on aluminum
Ford has plenty of numbers to validate its path with aluminum.
Since 2014, the F series’ share of the full-size pickup market has grown 1.3 percentage points to 37.8 percent. Its average transaction price has risen in each of the past four years, including a $3,200 jump in 2017 to a record $46,000.
And this month, Ford said the F-150 will be the first full-size pickup to crack the 30-mpg barrier with a diesel engine debuting this year.
“Whatever you see in the advertising, aluminum’s working,” CEO Jim Hackett said last week at the Automotive News World Congress. “People love driving this vehicle. They have no problem with the performance of the material.”
Ford has been so happy with the choice that it expanded its use of aluminum to the Super Duty, Expedition and Lincoln Navigator.
But the strategy is limited to the automaker’s largest vehicles. The midsize Ranger that debuted last week has a mostly steel body. Ford said the weight savings wouldn’t have been enough on a vehicle that size to offset the costs.
Ford also didn’t need the Ranger to be as powerful as the F-150 and wanted to keep the Ranger’s price down and help create separation between the two nameplates. As part of the F-150’s 2014 redesign, engineers used the 700-pound weight savings to beef up performance and capability.
“Aluminum for us was about more than weight,” said Bell, the truck’s marketing manager. “It handles better, brakes faster, hauls more, tows more. We were able to put that weight savings into more capability for the customer. We thought it was the perfect material for what customers do with their vehicles.”
The article “New pickups leave Ford on aluminum island” originally appeared on autonews.com