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Aluminium F-150 almost ready for prime time

Published:Sunday | November 16, 2014 | 12:00 AM

DEARBORN, Michigan (AP):

It's Ford Motor Co's biggest bet in decades: an aluminium-sided F-150 that could set a new industry standard - or cost the company its pickup truck crown.

Ford was scheduled to start production of the 2015 F-150 last Tuesday at its Dearborn Truck Plant, four miles from the company's headquarters. It will arrive at American dealerships next month.

Ford thinks a truck that is lighter and more fuel-efficient, but even more capable, will win buyers while competing trucks, still made of steel, struggle to catch up. It hopes those advantages outweigh any customer doubts about the durability of aluminium - which is lighter than steel but just as strong - or potential repair costs for the pricier metal.

There are big risks. Any quality problems, production hiccups or customer worries could slow sales and hurt Ford's bottom line. Morgan Stanley estimates F-Series trucks account for 90 per cent of Ford's global automotive profit.

The trucks have been the best-selling vehicles in the United States (US) for 37 straight years; last year, Ford sold nearly 100,000 more full-size pickups than General Motors.

Aluminium isn't new to the auto industry, but this is the first time it will cover the entire body of such a high-volume vehicle. Ford made 647,697 F-150 pickups at its two US plants last year; that's one every 49 seconds.

CEO Mark Fields told the Associated Press he is confident Ford made the right decision. The new truck has been through 10 million miles of testing, which is more than any other vehicle in Ford's history, he says.

Top managers agreed unanimously to switch to aluminium at a meeting in 2012.

"Were we recognising that it was a risk? Sure," Fields says. "But it was a very calculated and informed risk that gave us the confidence that we were going to get this done."

If Ford's bet pays off, it could gain an even more commanding lead in the lucrative truck market. More importantly, aluminium 'future proofs' the truck - and the company - in an era of rising fuel economy standards, says Karl Brauer, a senior analyst with Kelley Blue Book.

Expansion to more lines

"If Ford masters the art of delivering an aluminium vehicle at the level the F-150 sells, they are going to be able to expand that to Mustangs, Edges and Lincolns," Brauer says.

Truck buyers are among the most loyal in the auto market, and Ford can count on many of them. The company says more than 224,600 potential buyers have already asked for more details about the truck.

Ford's promise of better fuel economy also failed to sway Pruet, who is paying less than US$3 a gallon for gasolene in her area. Fuel economy numbers won't be released until later this month, but Ford has said the 2015 truck will have up to 20 per cent better fuel economy than the outgoing model, which gets up to 23 mpg on the highway.

Ford has the disadvantage of introducing the truck as gas prices are hitting a four-year low. But Fields says even when gas prices were US$1.25, truck buyers still asked for better fuel economy.

"These vehicles are not just vehicles to our customers. They're tools to help them do their job," Fields says. "This thing has to deliver."