When it was unveiled at the 2013 Detroit Auto Show, the Ford Atlas Concept caught the eye of many a journalist, as well as those of Ford's competitors. The Atlas' dramatic debut was seen by many as a calculated move to steal thunder from GM's introduction of the new 2014 Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra. But Doug Scott, Ford's Truck Group Marketing Manager, said the unveiling of the Atlas in Detroit was planned well in advance of any knowledge of GM's announcement of trucks' debut.
Now that the cat's out of the bag, figuratively-speaking, Ford is making the most of its latest concept truck, using it as a customer feedback tool to validate that the brand is on the same wavelength as its customers in regard to product features and attributes. "When you've spent that much money, you might as well get it out there," he said. "That's what you're trying to do with a concept vehicle, is get people to react to it, so you understand what do they like, what do they not like, what are those opinions. We're paying attention to all that feedback."
Following the success of the EcoBoost V-6 in the F-150, Scott is confident that Ford is in tune with its customers. Initial internal forecasts for the take rate on the EcoBoost were in the low 20 percent range, with Ford having an all-V-8 F-150 lineup just prior to the engine's introduction, its dealers and customers both emphasizing the importance of a V-8 offering the lineup. But Scott said he thinks it was in some ways a case of "you don't want what you don't know."
"We put some of our key dealers from Texas and other major markets in some early development mules of the EcoBoost, and they were amazed when they realized it was a V-6," Scott said. "There was still some nervousness that we'd be able to hit that low 20-percent number. In less than a year, some of the same dealers asked somewhat tongue-in-cheek, 'Why do we still have the 5.0-liter?' They didn't see [the EcoBoost's popularity] coming, and didn't expect it to be so successful. Last year, the product mix was 43 percent EcoBoost. Everybody was surprised."
Of course, success always makes you a potential target. GM and Chrysler are wasting no time in comparing their new V-8 powertrains to Ford's high-tech turbocharged six. Scott said that as much as Ford's cross-town rivals may be thumping their chests about their V-8 fuel economy, they're hedging their bets with powertrains similar to EcoBoost in development. "I'm sure we're going to hear 'this is a V-8, not a V-6' when the 2014 GM trucks come out, and when the Hemi gets the eight-speed, but the point is, both GM and Chrysler have their own versions of a GTDI (gasoline turbocharged direct-injection) engine coming within the next few years."
Fuel Economy: Customer-Driven
Although federally-mandated fuel economy standards are rapidly tightening, Scott said he thinks the importance of fuel economy is driven as much by customers as it is by regulations. "The number one unmet need in full-size trucks for the last 20 years is the same as it is today -- improved fuel economy. There's going to be an insatiable appetite for better fuel economy. Forget what the regulations are. When you talk about fuel economy in the truck segment, you used to think something in the mid-20s would be incredible for a full-size. Buyers are influenced by other market segments, where if it doesn't start with a '3,' it's not a big deal. But capability and durability are always going to be key."
Unibody a Possibility
While it's easy to look at the full-size truck segment as a monolithic bloc, Scott said that within the segment, there are diverse buyers with varying needs, from the recreationally-oriented and occasional-use buyers to those than need heavy-duty, work-oriented trucks, and that in the future, there may be even greater differentiation and segmentation than there is already. Scott thinks there could be room in the full-size segment for a unibody truck, citing the upcoming Transit van as an analogous example.
"We have 10 different models of the F-150. For some truck customers, they'd be willing to consider a unibody. Let's talk about the vans. The Transit and Transit Connect are unibody. We think they live up to the Built Ford Tough standard, and the Transit has certainly lived up to that reputation in Europe. If you can deliver something that lives up to that standard of durability, it's a possibility," he said. But ultimate capability will continue to reign supreme in the heavy-duty market, and with less demanding fuel economy standards for HD trucks, the primary focus will remain on towing and hauling capabilities.