It’s game on for large pickup trucks, with the popular Ford F-150 made at Claycomo preparing to battle tougher competition.
The new Chevrolet Silverado 1500 and the Dodge Ram 1500 are getting good reviews, with the magazine Consumer Reports preferring them over the F-150. Adding insult to injury, the magazine has stopped recommending the F-150 with the fuel-efficient EcoBoost engine because of what it says are reliability problems.
F-series pickup trucks have been the best selling vehicles in the U.S for decades, and a source of bragging rights for Ford officials. And with strong brand loyalty, Ford is expected to successfully defend its turf.
But analysts say it’s time for a retooled and redesigned F-150. Ford isn’t saying publicly when that will happen, but it’s widely expected to show up in dealer showrooms next year with improved fuel economy, more features, upgraded interiors and a bolder design.
“Everyone has new stuff, boom boom boom,” said Michelle Krebs, a senior analyst for Edmunds.com, an automotive website. “It’s going to be interesting.”
The stakes are high for Ford, GM and Chrysler, who have cornered the market for large pickup trucks, one of the hottest and most profitable segments of the auto business. Foreign competitors have found themselves fighting for scraps in the category.
The Detroit automakers basically abandoned the market for mid-size pickups, leaving most of it to the Toyota Tacoma and Nissan Frontier. But General Motors is jumping back in with its new Chevrolet Colorado.
Kansas City has the biggest dog in the fight for large pickups, because most F-150s are made at the Claycomo plant. The pickup has been a star in the company’s line-up, providing a majority of the sales for its F-series pickup trucks.
Ford officials recently made the rounds to boast about the EcoBoost engine, which was introduced in 2011 for the F-150 as a V6 with direct fuel injection and a turbocharger. Those boosts allowed it to use less fuel while delivering more performance.
The engine successfully challenged the idea that only big V8 engines could be popular in large pickup trucks, and the F-150 EcoBoost reached a milestone in November when it passed the 400,000 mark for sales. It made fuel economy an important feature for large pickups.
“The EcoBoost did the job,” said Erik Peterson, Ford’s marketing manager for the F-150.
The F-150’s lineage dates back to the late 1940s when the F-1 pickup was introduced with such improvements as one-piece windshields. The F-series brand gained a reputation as a workhorse, a trait burnished in recent years with those “Ford Tough” advertisements.
The F-150 and other pickups were hit hard by the last recession, but they have helped lead the auto industry out of it. Large pickup trucks accounted for 1.6 million units or 12 percent of car and pickup sales in 2012 and have gathered more steam this year, according to LMC Automotive, an automotive forecasting firm.
The recovering economy has caused demand for large pickups to explode, creating more business for everybody. The F-150’s sales have grown by 60 percent since 2009. The F-150 is still first among large pickups, but the Silverado is a close second. GM actually sells more large pickups if sales for the Silverado and its corporate twin, the GMC Sierra, are combined.
The Silverado and Sierra, along with the Ram, are providing stiff competition for the F-150 EcoBoost’s fuel economy, and there have been other signs the pickup is falling behind its newer rivals.
“The F-150 is feeling a little old,” said Tom Mutchler, an engineer in Consumer Reports’ auto testing department.
But Ford is aiming to change that view.
Ford signaled major changes were ahead when it unexpectedly displayed the Ford Atlas, a concept vehicle for a new F-150, at the Detroit auto show in January. The Ram 1500 won the show’s truck of the year award, and the coming Silverado was on prominent display. The unveiling of the Atlas sent a message to potential pickup customers to be patient because a new F-150 was on the way.
Heavily camouflaged redesigned F-150s have recently been spotted on public roads around Ford’s testing grounds, and enough could be seen to show it has at least some of the Atlas features, including a bolder grill. The auto magazine Motor Trend says the new F-150 is expected to be 700 pounds lighter, which would improve mileage, and may offer a slightly smaller EcoBoost engine, which also would help with fuel efficiency.
The EcoBoost, in whatever configuration, is certain to have a major role in the new model. It already accounts for more than a third of the engines installed in F-150s, a quicker and higher adoption rate than anticipated when introduced in 2011.
Larger V8 engines have always ruled in full-size pickups, where industry dogma said there “was no replacement for displacement.” But the EchoBoost V6 has made a big dent.
V8s are still being ordered in half of F-150s, but 38 percent have the EcoBoost six-cylinder, and 12 percent have a traditional six-cylinder engine.
EcoBoost was a major initiative by Ford during the depths of the recession. The idea was to get more out of of smaller engines to help meet more stringent fuel economy standards but also retain as much as possible the performance of larger engines.
Ford is now offering EcoBoost engines in 15 different vehicles. Besides the V6, some are four cylinder engines, and a three-cylinder EcoBoost was recently introduced for the Ford Focus.
The F-150 EcoBoost specifications show why the engine has made inroads — and why it has started to fall behind. It has more horsepower and towing capacity than one of the V8s offered with the F-150. Another, larger V8 has more horsepower but the same towing capacity. And the EcoBoost beats both on fuel economy in EPA ratings.
“They made a big impact,” said Krebs of Edmunds.com referring to the EcoBoost engines. GM and Chrysler realized that “Ford had upped the ante.”
But both companies stepped up to the challenge. GM, for example, is offering engines with direct fuel injection and technology that deactivates cylinders when the extra power is not needed. One of its V8 engines delivers the same fuel economy as the F-150 EcoBoost and more towing capacity. Ram added improvements such as an eight-speed transmission to boost fuel economy and will soon offer best-in-class mileage with a V6 diesel engine.
Now it’s Ford’s turn to see if the F-150 can once again up the ante.
“It’s (about) constant improvement,” said Peterson, the F-150 marketing manager. “The customer doesn’t stand still.”