Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misstated the inventory levels some Detroit 3 automakers consider ideal for full-size pickup trucks.
The rocks General Motors is dumping on Ford’s aluminum-bodied F-150 were a long time coming.
GM isn’t just trying to poke holes in the F-150’s invincible U.S. sales and undermine the confidence of Ford’s truck customers.
The bigger picture is this: GM smells blood in the water. For the first time in decades, the F-150 looks vulnerable to GM. The aluminum-bodied F-150 has not been quite the raging success Ford would like everyone to believe.
U.S. sales of the F series are up impressively this year, about 7 percent. But volume has come at a very high cost for a product that is still early in its product cycle.
There’s been significant cash on the new F-150’s hood almost since it was launched in late 2014, an unusual practice for a new pickup. And F-150 inventories have at times been higher than the roughly 100-day supply that Ford and other Detroit automakers consider ideal for full-size pickups.
Last month, Ford halted production of the F-150 at its Kansas City plant as it rectified production line issues; at that time, F-150 inventories were the highest in a decade. The discipline of matching output to demand, a key pillar of the years when Alan Mulally was Ford CEO, appears to have been abandoned under Mark Fields.
Because the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra are nearing the end of their current product cycle, GM is in a position to inflict financial pain on a competitor. And that is exactly what GM is doing by calling out a perceived weakness in the F-150’s construction and forcing Ford to respond with more money on the hood.
U.S. incentives on the F series are averaging $3,343 per vehicle through May, up from $2,008 in the first five months of 2015, Autodata Corp. says. Chevrolet Silverado incentives are averaging $4,951 (vs. $3,521 in 2015) and FCA US has offered deals that average $5,698 (vs. $4,132 in 2015) on the Ram pickup this year.
Earlier this month, one model of the F-150 had as much as $11,259 in incentives stacked on the fenders, up about $1,000 from before the Chevy attack ads came out, according to a Ford marketing memo distributed to dealers in the southeast U.S. on June 10.
According to documents sent to dealers this month, GM is offering 0 percent financing for 60 months plus up to $8,250 in cash and other rebates on some Silverado crew-cab models. Spot checks of some dealer websites show discounts as high as $13,000 on certain 2016 Silverado models.
But there’s more.
GM is saying loud and clear that it thinks Ford goofed by using soft metal in a vulnerable place on a vehicle designed for work. And GM is signaling it won’t do the same thing on the redesigned Silverado and Sierra when they are expected to arrive in late 2018 for the 2019 model year.
While Ford beat GM to the market with a lightweight truck -- the new F-150 has won kudos for its performance and handling -- it did so using yester-tech manufacturing technology perfected in the 1990s. Bonding and riveting holds the F-150’s aluminum body together.
GM thinks it has a better idea with its patented “mixed materials” strategy that seamlessly assembles advanced high-strength steel, aluminum sheet and cast parts, magnesium and extrusions on the assembly line. GM also uses bonding and some self-piercing screws, but not enough to warrant tearing up the company’s manufacturing infrastructure.
GM officials recently explained their approach to lightweighting as simply using “the right material in the right place and the right amount.”
Ford has said fewer than 1 percent of customers who bought the new F-150 have complained about damage to the bed. But Ford has built nearly 1 million copies of the new F-150. Do the math. That’s up to 10,000 complaints, a significant number in my view.
So, the Chevy ads have put Ford in a bit of a pickle.
Does it ignore them and let another competitor attempt to ding the fenders of its cash cow? Does Ford install a bedliner as standard equipment on all F-150s, adding weight and cost to the truck, but shutting down GM’s big marking push? Will Ford switch to an advanced high-strength-steel bed?
This summer’s pickup marketing wars could get red hot.