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Lighten up

Ford F-150, Jaguar XS going heavy on aluminum

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Ford's F-150 and the long-promised Jaguar XS entry-level luxury sedan would seem -- apart from the former's unfortunate ownership of the latter -- to have little in common. One is the bestselling vehicle in North America and the other is to be the replacement for the ill-conceived X-Type (foisted on it by the aforementioned Ford management).

Ford's pickup is said to be responsible for 90 per cent of the company's worldwide profit, while the entire Jaguar brand is still struggling from the hangover of Ford management, sales still languishing despite its now impressive model lineup.

And yet the immensely successful F-150 and the yet-to-be-introduced Jaguar XS share one extremely, and sure to be closely watched, attribute: both are the first applications -- save for Audi's doomed A2 -- of lightweight aluminum construction in a price point-sensitive market.

To be sure, aluminum is no stranger to automotive construction -- Land Rover's Series I used aluminum-magnesium alloy for its body parts as long ago as 1948 and Audi started using its aluminum-spaceframe technology in the A8 in 1994. But so far, significant aluminum construction -- other than specific body parts such as hoods and trunk lids -- has been reserved for the upper end of the automotive food chain.

Audi's A8 and R8, Jaguar's XJ and XK and the Range Rover and Range Rover Sport all boast an aluminum chassis of some sort, but the singular effort at larger-scale mass production -- that of the exquisitely crafted but poor-selling A2 -- was doomed by the cost of more labour-intensive aluminum construction.

Other lower-cost cars (Audi's TT, for instance) have incorporated aluminum into their superstructure, but they have always been "hybrid" designs that make extensive use of high tensile steel as well.

And truth be told, we don't know for sure either the Ford or the Jag will be as aluminum-intensive as rumoured. The news the 2015 XS will feature an XJ-like aluminum monocoque stems from a Financial Times report and a recent story by The Truth About Cars, claiming the F-150 due in 2015 will be aluminum-bodied.

Both are radical steps, both instigated by desperate (though different) incentives.

Jaguar's motivation is simple: Despite massive gains in quality, performance and style, its worldwide sales remain minuscule. It sells about a fifth of the vehicles sister brand Land Rover does and but five per cent of Mercedes-Benz's annual total. The recently introduced and incredibly sexy F-Type will no doubt raise the company's profile, but what the automaker really needs is a meat-and-potatoes 3 Series fighter.

To do so, Jaguar needs the new XS to feature some game-changing technology. With parent company chairman Ratan Tata promising four years ago all future Jaguars and Land Rovers would be constructed of aluminum, it's a no-brainer Jaguar sees a breakthrough in a lighter-than-steel chassis as a game-changer for the XS.

Ford's motivation, though different, is no less intense. Spurred by the U.S. government's recent Corporate Average Fuel Economy changes, as well as consumers' new-found desire for improved gas mileage, the company is looking at any and all methods of reducing fuel consumption.

Like Jaguar, Ford's motivation for using aluminum in all its body panels is simple weight reduction, the predicted 300-kilogram weight loss worth as much as a 10 per cent cut in fuel consumption. And since weight reduction allows a self-reinforcing circle of other fuel-conserving changes, the 2015 F-150 is also rumoured to feature an even smaller 2.7-litre version of Ford's popular EcoBoost V6.

As to why aluminum hasn't yet seen more extensive use in the 20 years since the introduction of the aluminum-space-framed Audi A8, the lighter-than-steel metal does require different and sometimes more costly manufacturing techniques. It is more difficult to form than steel, some body panel curves require three times as many steps in bending as steel. Indeed, until recently, construction was more hand-assembled than automated, a death knell for widespread mass production.

There's also been no consensus in manufacturing process: Audi's spaceframe, with its welded and riveted construction, is vastly different than Jaguar's riveted and bonded unibody.

Repairability has been a concern as well. Aluminum's tendency to "spring back" confounded body-repair facilities, and when Audi first introduced its aluminum spaceframe, A8s had to be sent to the United States for repair.

Though much progress has been made, F-150-related blogospheres are already awash in rumours it will be difficult to repair the new truck's aluminum body panels.

But the most important thing the industry will be watching will be the cost of this shedding of steel. The XS is Jaguar's entry into the price-sensitive "near luxury" segment and Ford's F-150 now starts at $19,999 here in the Great White North.

If Ford can maintain that price point for an aluminum-bodied truck while still making the astonishing profits the F-150 traditionally generates, and Jaguar can be competitive with its Teutonic rivals, there may indeed be a revolution brewing.

-- Postmedia Network Inc. 2013

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 20, 2013 A1

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