While most of my colleagues were bundled up and jostling shoulder to shoulder with fellow automotive journalists in Detroit's Cobo Hall, I went to a less conspicuous and publicized event on the West Coast featuring the F-150, under the guise of community redevelopment in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley. Although there were still a fair amount of journalists present, there were probably nowhere near the throngs as at Detroit, and I had ample time to photograph, sit in, knuckle-rap, and play with the features of the 2015 Ford F-150.
The specifications released on the new truck reveal only part of the story, with final engine output, fuel economy, curb weights, payload, and towing capacity figures to be announced. But just from what I saw, one thing is clear: Ford is not holding back on pushing the envelope in the full-size truck market, and is not afraid of venturing into uncharted territory to maintain its leadership in the segment.
Big Bet on Aluminum
Ford must be very confident in the ruggedness and durability of the military-grade aluminum on the new F-150, because it uses a lot of it. I believe Ford was wise to stick with a fully boxed steel frame, if for no other reason than perception. Sure, it probably could have gone with an aluminum frame as well. Some Class-8 trucks in the 1970s actually had them. It could have probably gone with a partial C-channel frame as well, maintaining the same engineering targets for torsion, flex, and durability as a fully boxed frame. But full-size truck buyers have been conditioned over the last decade to want and expect a "fully boxed" frame. Anything less would have been perceived as weak or suspect.
Although some traditionalists are sure to make "Coke can" jokes about the new Ford's body, it does seem pretty substantial. Knocking on it with your knuckles makes a much different noise from that of a steel door, with less resonance and a flatter sound, indicating thicker material. Even opening and closing the doors on the prototype gave a solid-sounding "thunk." Ford could have played it safe and stuck with steel or done a plastic composite bed in the F-150, but that too is of aluminum, and the engineers said they tested the aluminum bed incognito on fleet vehicles, where it was subjected to the same abuse that "regular" trucks with steel beds would get and that it held up as well as, if not better than, steel.
When asked about the reparability and insurance premium over steel, representatives were a little less committal, only saying they'd taken body shops' unfamiliarity with aluminum into consideration, as well as bringing up that there were other production vehicles on sale for several years with aluminum bodies. But it's one thing to sell a few thousand A8s, and XJs a year, which will likely go to specialized body shops in metropolitan areas. This bad boy will sell in the hundreds of thousands, from coast to coast, in cities, and in the most remote rural areas imaginable. If your local body shop isn't familiar with working with aluminum, it will be soon enough, whether it likes it or not.
Just five years ago, the idea of a 2.7-liter engine in a full-size truck would seem laughable, if not downright ridiculous. Even three years ago, when the 3.5-liter EcoBoost debuted, there were plenty of doubts of how full-size buyers would accept an engine that small. With a take rate of over 40 percent, the segment's resistance to smaller-displacement engines seems a non-issue.
But Ford is not positioning the 2.7 EcoBoost as the macho-man, 12,000-plus-pound workhorse of the lineup. Rather, it's positioning it as the mid-range, occasional-use engine best suited to the everyday commuter who occasionally tows a smaller boat, watercraft, or ATV. For more serious work duty, the 3.5 EcoBoost and 5.0-liter V-8 are still available.
It seems the 2015 F-150’s styling is predictably polarizing. The Ford loyalists love it, the Ram and Chevy fans hate it, and some are warming up to it. From my perspective, if you liked the Atlas, you'll like the 2015 F-150. Most of the details carry over, minus a little of the show truck's brightwork.
Clever, Useful Features
The remote-opening tailgate, LED rear and side directional lights, integrated tailgate step, and addition of adaptive cruise control are all big steps forward in user-friendliness in the full-size market. And rather than just limiting grille shutters to a few special "high-efficiency" models, Ford has deployed them across the lineup, from bare-bones XL to top-trim Platinum.
While Ford is sticking to the tried-and-true rear leaf springs for the F-150, it hasn't lost sight of what trucks are primarily made for, at least theoretically, and that's work. As dated as the design may seem, leafs are still the best overall design for carrying a load, although the Ram R&D team might have something to say about that.
Ford's recent history in pushing the envelope in trucks seems to have largely paid off. Nobody knew how well EcoBoost would be received. Real-world sales exceeded even Ford's internal expectations. The engine has not been completely without its issues, but by and large has proven the concept of a downsized, turbocharged gas engine in a work vehicle.
It would seem on the surface that Ford is taking an even bigger gamble with the aluminum body. But seeing as the F-150 is the company's undisputed volume leader and cash cow, Ford wouldn’t bring it to market if it didn't have complete and total confidence in its durability.
I believe we're looking at the future of full-size trucks. From smaller engines, to increased use of advanced materials, the F-150 is undoubtedly the shape of things to come in the years ahead in trucks.