* New Ford F-150 to be lighter than current model
* Ford explores design changes, lightweight materials
* Ford, GM have contrasting visions of pickup truck future
* Ford shares close at highest level since June 2011
By Deepa Seetharaman
DETROIT, Jan 15 (Reuters) - Ford Motor Co gave a sneak peek on Tuesday at the future direction of its highly popular F-150 pickup truck series by unveiling a concept version called the “Atlas” that reflects Ford’s push to improve gas mileage across its product line.
The vehicle, due out for the 2015 model year, will be much lighter than its predecessor and has a more rugged look. It also represents a vision of the future of pickup trucks that contrasts with that of rival General Motors Co.
Pickup trucks are a lucrative slice of the U.S. automotive market, and the Ford F-150 is the best-selling vehicle in the United States.
The F-150 concept is outfitted with the next generation of Ford’s turbocharged engine, known as EcoBoost, to wring out more miles per gallon. It also features active grille and wheel shutters to improve aerodynamics - a technology that improves fuel economy by about 2 percent, Ford has previously said.
Ford shares rose 2.2 percent to close at $14.30, the highest level in about 18 months, after the Atlas unveiling on Tuesday.
The concept “shows that we’re going to do whatever it takes to be preferred in the market segment,” Chief Executive Alan Mulally told reporters Tuesday during an industry conference held in conjunction with the Detroit auto show.
“Every indication that we’re absolutely committed to improving these vehicles is a major proof point for the Ford plan,” he said. “That is what is going to allow us to grow.”
The second-largest U.S. automaker is cutting the weight of its cars and trucks and using turbocharged engines to meet stricter federal standards for fuel economy and attract the growing number of truck buyers who value fuel-efficiency.
Ford must comply with the U.S. government’s target for corporate average fuel economy of 54.5 mpg by 2025. This translates to 36 mpg or higher in real world driving - on average.
Boosting fuel economy in trucks is particularly challenging because they are large and must be capable of towing heavy loads. Using hybrid and electric car technology on these models remains extremely costly.
While Ford said the next F-150 would be lighter than the outgoing version, executives stopped short of specifying the kinds of materials or weight savings targeted for the new F-150. Raj Nair, head of global product development, said Ford is exploring the use of lightweight materials like high-strength steel, aluminum and carbon fiber across its lineup.
In its F-150 overhaul, Ford is looking to shave an average of 700 to 750 pounds from each vehicle through extensive use of aluminum as well as a redesign of components including brakes and axles, people familiar with the matter have said.
“Part of our strategy is to have all of our vehicles go on a diet in terms of weight,” Chief Operating Officer Mark Fields said on the sidelines of the Detroit auto show on Tuesday.
The F-series and sport-utility derivatives such as the Expedition account for more than 90 percent of Ford’s global profit, according to Morgan Stanley auto analyst Adam Jonas.
Analysts say the segment is due for a rebound this year as the U.S. housing market rallies. Ford’s decision to reveal the upcoming pickup at the auto show 18 months before it hits the market reflects the highly competitive nature of the lucrative truck market.
Ford’s U.S. rivals, GM and Chrysler Group LLC, showcased new trucks at the show as well. GM will begin selling a new Chevrolet Silverado and Colorado, considered GM’s most crucial launches since its 2009 bankruptcy.
GM and Ford are fierce competitors in the full-size pickup segment, which accounted for about 11 percent of the U.S. auto market last year and will grow increasingly competitive as more truck owners look to replace their vehicles.
But in their latest truck redesigns, they have diverged in their focus, with Ford placing more emphasis on fuel economy.
“In our industry over the last 20-plus years, there have been many manufacturers that have tried to redo the size-value equality in the truck market,” said Jim Farley, Ford’s head of global marketing. “Over the next several years we’ll see how it plays out once again.”
More than half of trucks on U.S. roads are more than 10 years old, Fields said. So-called style buyers or consumers who liked but did not really need trucks are now buying different kinds of vehicles.
Truck buyers now are eager for the latest technology and are willing to pay for it, Farley said, adding that the average price today for a light-duty pickup truck is nearly $30,000.
The current version of the F-150 already features an aluminum hood as well as other aluminum components.
Ford is looking to strip out between 250 and 750 pounds from vehicles across its lineup. The weight savings can also be achieved through changes to the overall design process.
The company’s designers are “almost working backwards from what would be an ideal structure from a weight and load basis and then working to get the manufacturing and production feasibility out of it,” Nair told reporters.