* 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 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
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
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
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.