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Other Opinion: Restless auto industry in new skin

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However it turns out, Ford’s decision to go to an aluminum body F-150, starting with the 2015 model year, is one gutsy move, and a big marker of the nation’s shift to fuel efficiency. The pickup is no niche product, but rather America’s best-selling vehicle and an iconic element of the Ford brand.

Aluminum, lighter than steel, saves gas. But it’s expensive, which means Ford will have to make trade-offs to keep the F-150’s price from rising. The light-weight material also complicates the manufacturing process. But the big question is whether Ford customers will embrace a product more associated with light beer than heavy lifting.

Aluminum has long been used for jet aircraft, military vehicles and some high-end cars. Properly re-enforced, it need not be any weaker than steel. And with the new aluminum F-150 weighing 700 pounds less than previous models, it’ll go farther for fewer dollars.

Indeed, a key driver of Ford’s move is the federal government’s tough new fuel economy mandates. By 2025, the average vehicle sold by automakers is supposed be almost twice as efficient as what it was in 2011. Dramatically cutting down on the weight of the F-150, which currently guzzles at a rate of 17 mpg, will give Ford more flexibility to meet the mandates without having to under-power its other vehicles.

But this is about more than complying with Washington rules. As much as anything that has happened since the Great Recession, Ford’s move shows just how transformed the Detroit-based auto industry is. Not so long ago, the Big Three — Ford, General Motors and Chrysler — were, at best, drifting along.

They had a virtual lock on full-sized pickups and large SUVs. The large margins on these vehicles made up for the poor performance elsewhere in the product lines.

In the past few years, however, as GM and Chrysler were remade through bankruptcy reorganization and bailout, and Ford went through an equally impressive metamorphosis without taxpayers’ help, they all began making more appealing sedans and competing more aggressively for young buyers.

In making an audacious change to its most profitable franchise, Ford is going beyond fixing the broken parts of its company. It’s saying that no part of the Ford line is immune from the need to innovate.

With the Big Three controlling more than 90 per cent of the market for full-sized trucks, the Detroit of old would have been tempted to merely reap the profits while making incremental changes and lobbying for loopholes in fuel standards.

The aluminum F-150 shows the kind of restlessness that American automakers have long lacked. Now all that Ford’s marketers have to do is persuade rugged pickup drivers to get comfortable in a new skin.

 

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