Modified: January 28, 2013 11:49 AM
With Atlas pickup, Ford trades Marlboro Man for gizmos
Features aim to improve utility, fuel economy
DETROIT -- Auto show concept vehicles are sort of like presidential inaugural addresses: They outline a broad, shining vision of the future, but they're short on the details of how that vision will be executed.
Such is the case with the Ford Atlas Concept pickup unveiled at the Detroit auto show. The Atlas Concept shows how the industry's leading pickup brand views the future: He who has the most futuristic gizmos wins, provided those gizmos enhance the utility, practicality and economy of America's favorite tool on four wheels.
The Atlas Concept is loaded with features worthy of a high-tech luxury automobile, and then some. In a bid to improve fuel economy, the Atlas Concept has the next-generation EcoBoost engine with stop-start. Active aerodynamic features include a drop-down front air dam and grille and wheel shutters designed to open and close depending on the vehicle's speed.
"The Ford Atlas Concept previews the innovations that will transform what people expect from their pickup," said Raj Nair, Ford Motor Co.'s product development chief, in a statement.
The truck generated a huge buzz and stole some of the thunder from the 2014 Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups, which were unveiled a few weeks before the show and will arrive in showrooms in the second quarter.
The next generation F-150 is due at dealerships in the second half of 2014 as a 2015 model. Between now and then, Ford will listen to feedback and decide which features to include on the production version of its next pickup.
"That was a concept vehicle. You noticed how large that truck was. It was an 82-square-foot footprint, probably 10 percent bigger than the current F-150," said Richard Schultz, head of the automotive materials practice at research firm Ducker Worldwide in suburban Detroit. "They were very careful not to say anything about that vehicle. But they did capture the imagination of the media. They got some attention, which will keep people from rushing out to buy Silverados."
Some observers thought the Atlas looked more like a Super Duty than an F-150.
Ford offered no details about what kinds of lightweight materials it used in the concept, other than to say the concept contains ultra-high-strength boron steel and some aluminum, as does the current F-150. Before the show, rumors spread that the next-generation F-150 would use far more aluminum than any pickup before it.
The industry is turning to lightweight materials ahead of stricter government-mandated fuel economy standards. Ford has said it would like to shed as much as 750 pounds from the current F-150. But it takes more than just a diet to eke out extra miles per gallon.
All automakers use passive aerodynamics: styling a vehicle to slip through the air, reducing drag and improving fuel economy.
The Atlas Concept is a tour de force of active aerodynamics, with features that activate, depending on speed, to smooth the flow of air over, under and around the truck.
For instance, active wheel shutters open and close like a butterfly's wings to seal the gaps between each wheel's spokes, reducing air turbulence around the wheels and tires.
A trailer backup-assist feature helps drivers back up trailers as if they were seasoned semi drivers. Dynamic Hitch Assist ends the task of lowering a trailer hitch onto the truck's hitch ball.
The trailer hitch is "a more aggressive way to help one guy behind the wheel of a truck to hitch his trailer. That has always been difficult to do even if you have a backup camera," said Mark Williams, editor of pickuptrucks.com, an enthusiast Web site.
Pickup owners would find that functionality very useful, he said. But Williams questioned whether the fuel economy payoff from active wheel shutters was worth "a wheel design that has to be incredibly complicated."
Drivers hauling trailers need their brakes to be cooled constantly, and that can only happen with air flowing freely around the spokes, he added.
Williams was also impressed with the tailgate step that turns into a cargo cradle to hold extra-long objects such as canoes or two-by-fours in place.
'Precision machine' interior
J Mays, Ford's global design chief, said the interior offered a "strong hint of the next generation of truck interiors, more of the look of a precision machine," getting away from what he called the "Marlboro Man" look so popular in the segment.
The interior features floating instrument pods, chromelike accents and "quite dominant geometric shapes that lock together and aren't your usual truck materials," Mays said.
After the public days of the Detroit show, the Atlas Concept will go on tour. The first stop will be the Chicago Auto Show, which opens to the public Feb. 9.