The 2015 F-150 pickup has a lot riding on it

Ford's big aluminum gamble

The 2015 F-150 pickup has a lot riding on it

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DETROIT -- With CEO Alan Mulally's Microsoft uncertainty laid to rest, Ford Motor Co. today turns its attention to its most important launch so far this decade: the 2015 F-150 pickup being launched at the Detroit auto show.

The F series is Ford's biggest seller and most profitable vehicle by far and has been the best-selling light vehicle in the United States for 32 straight years. Without truck profits, none of Ford's investment in compact and mid-sized cars and crossovers would have been possible.

One word is on everyone's lips about the next-generation F-150: "aluminum." To save weight, Ford plans to build the body-in-white out of aluminum, including the cab, the doors and the hood.

And the word is followed by question marks. Will aluminum be as durable as high strength steel? Can Ford, which has suffered repeated launch glitches at its factories, execute the major changes flawlessly for its biggest launch? Can a truck made with more expensive materials rake in the same margins as the current F-150? How much weight can Ford take out, and what fuel economy savings will result?

Under the leadership of Mulally, an engineer by training and true believer in the power of technology, Ford has worked to stake out its credentials as an industry leader in technology. The results have been mixed.

In little more than three years, Ford's EcoBoost engine brand has been a runaway success and now dominates Ford's powertrain lineup. But the MyFord Touch infotainment and connectivity system has been dragged down by complexity and bugs that have hurt Ford's quality ratings.

An aluminum-intensive truck is Mulally's biggest technology bet yet. Ford hopes the truck will be future-proof as government fuel economy standards tighten.

"What's at stake is Ford's profitability," said Eric Noble, analyst for The CarLab in Orange, Calif. "Unlike MyFord Touch, which can be a drag on satisfaction but not necessarily an inhibitor to purchase, if this execution created any kind of durability, quality or reliability issue, that could damage the program in volume terms and net contribution margin terms."

You can reach Bradford Wernle at bwernle@crain.com.


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