If the aluminum-bodied vehicles on the road today are an accurate gauge, the 2015 Ford F-150 probably will be more expensive to repair than its steel-bodied predecessor.
Body shop owners say aluminum repair parts are more expensive than steel parts. And because it often takes longer to repair an aluminum body, the labor costs usually are higher.
That has been the experience of a suburban Detroit chain of high-end body shops that repair aluminum Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and BMW vehicles and a New York shop that handles Jaguar and Land Rover aluminum vehicles.
But Ford says that situation will change. At the National Automobile Dealers Association convention, the company told dealers the redesigned F-150 would not be more expensive to repair than the current model.
Although aluminum repair parts cost more, Ford said, they are designed to be installed quickly and easily, which would reduce labor.
Insurance companies will have a lot of say about what the repairs will cost.
"The cost to repair depends on the insurance company," said Larry Smith, owner of Autometric Collision Inc. in suburban Detroit. "The good insurance companies will listen to us and pay attention to the manufacturer's guidelines. The bad ones will discount what the manufacturers say."
For instance, if a piece of the metal body is bent more than a few millimeters, a manufacturer may require a replacement, while an insurance company would pressure the body shop for a cheaper fix by straightening it, said Smith, whose company has nine shops in the Detroit area.
Work is similar
The shift to aluminum will be costly for Ford dealers in terms of the equipment they must buy and the training technicians will have to take. To help, Ford is offering dealerships a 20 percent discount on equipment and training through October.
But Smith says working with aluminum is no more difficult than working with steel; it's just different. He said if a body shop technician is open to change and has the proper training, he or she can adapt to aluminum.
Land Rover, the latest automaker to switch from steel to aluminum, requires body shop personnel working on the aluminum-bodied Range Rover to pass a thorough training program. Some dealers send their body shop employees, while dealers who don't have their own body shops must ensure that the body shops they send their customers to are trained.
Ford dealers will use a body shop training program run by the Inter-Industry Conference on Auto Collision Repair, the same as Land Rover.
"We have a one-week Jaguar-Land Rover intensive welding, riveting and bonding class held at the I-CAR training headquarters in Appleton, Wis.," said Land Rover spokesman Wayne York Kung. "[Dealer body] shops are required to have a minimum of two structural techs on staff.
"We require that repairs performed on all-aluminum vehicles be separated, and in a number of cases the certified shop actually has a separate building where they do these repairs."
Smith said he spent about $50,000 to train two employees to repair the new aluminum Porsche 911 sports car. "I won't live long enough to recoup that," he said. It costs about $20,000 each to send technicians to Mercedes-Benz to learn how to fix that company's vehicles.
Ford dealers might recoup their costs quickly because of the F-150's high volume. More than 500,000 F-150s were sold in 2013.
Land Rover dealer Michael Levitan's three stores on Long Island in New York don't have body shops. Instead, Levitan works with a local independent collision repair center, Supreme Auto Collision, in Lindenhurst, N.Y., that has completed Land Rover's dealer training course. Levitan says there have been no issues with having aluminum-bodied Range Rovers properly repaired.
Glenn Berman, owner of Supreme Auto Collision, said owners of aluminum-bodied vehicles pay more for repairs. He said the replacement body parts are more expensive and the labor costs are higher because aluminum repairs take longer than fixing a steel-bodied vehicle.
Another factor driving up the price: While steel aftermarket parts are widely available, the only aluminum replacements currently available come from the vehicle manufacturers.
"When something [on a steel-bodied vehicle] gets bent, you can pull it out and straighten it," Berman said. "On an aluminum vehicle, the factory wants you to remove the entire piece and replace everything."
He said insurance companies often pressure him to deviate from factory repair procedures to cut costs.
Smith, the Detroit-area body shop owner, said the best advice he could give to Ford dealers who will work on the aluminum F-150 is to buy the best aluminum repair equipment available and to send as many body shop technicians to school as possible.
Said Smith: "Don't take a shortcut and send just one guy, hoping he'll tell the guy in the next stall over how to do things. That won't work."