Could Ford's (NYSE: F ) upcoming new F-150 be a failure?
It seems really unlikely, doesn't it? After all, Ford's current truck is still a class leader, even though it's in the final year of its run. And Ford's other recent products have mostly been smash hits, and the F-Series is the company's most important product line, hands-down.
Ford clearly knows – in great detail – what pickup buyers want right now. The updates it has made to the F-150 and its Super Duty siblings have kept it fresh and competitive, even as it approaches the end of its model life.
But there's an all-new F-150 coming next year. And while its chances of being a success are pretty high, there are still some ways in which Ford could miss the mark – and fall behind arch-rival General Motors (NYSE: GM ) .
GM took a conservative approach, but still raised the bar
GM has brand-new trucks of its own, of course. The current versions of the Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra are looking somewhat long in the tooth, because they are – the designs are several years old now, and GM hasn't been as good as Ford at making updates to keep them fresh.
But the General's all-new trucks will be arriving at dealers later this year, and early reviews have been quite positive. It's true that GM took an evolutionary approach, rather than a revolutionary one – the new trucks are a bit bolder-looking than the old ones, but the overall look is similar. And while there are lots of improvements, most of them are incremental – a little more towing capacity here, a nicer dashboard there.
Taken together, of course, those improvements make the new truck a big step forward from the outgoing versions, say reviewers – and they should have no trouble finding buyers when they hit dealers this fall.
It won't be surprising if they steal some sales from Ford – that's how it goes when you launch a new truck. But the question is, will Ford's new truck, due next year, be enough of an improvement to win them back – and then some?
That's a complicated question.
New fuel-sipping engines are a safe bet
Ford has made it pretty clear that fuel economy will be a priority for the next F-Series. GM made it a priority, too: Ads for the new Chevy Silverado are expected to make a lot of hay out of the fact that GM's new high-tech V8 actually beat Ford's much-advertised V6 EcoBoost pickup drivetrain on EPA fuel-economy tests.
Naturally, Ford is expected to respond with fuel-saving improvements to its engines, such as "stop-start" technology that automatically turns the engine off when you stop, and starts it again when you press the gas pedal.
It's also possible that Ford will bring a hybrid pickup to market. Ford is known to be working with Toyota (NYSE: TM ) on a hybrid powertrain for pickups and full-sized SUVs. It's not clear when that will be ready for market, but I wouldn't be at all surprised to see it introduced as an option on the next F-150.
Are you ready for an aluminum pickup truck?
But Ford is expected to go well beyond tweaks to its engine designs in its pursuit of a more economical pickup. Rumors have suggested that Ford has used aluminum extensively in the new truck, in place of steel, in a quest to cut the F-150's weight by hundreds of pounds.
That has worried some potential buyers, because aluminum isn't anywhere near as strong as steel. Obviously, Ford's truck designers aren't clueless – they'll likely keep the aluminum up front, with plenty of steel supporting the loaded section in back. But taking that much weight (as much as 700 pounds, rumors suggest) out of a pickup may not sit well with some fans.
Ford's also expected to make heavy use of aerodynamic tweaks to lower the truck's fuel consumption. Last year's Ford Atlas Concept show truck had funky gas-saving features like "active wheels", with shutters that close at highway speeds to streamline the truck and save gas.
Those may or may not end up in production. But they show the lengths that Ford went to in its testing to try to wring maximum fuel economy out of its next F-150. And if the changes turn out to be radical, some conservative pickup buyers may choose to look elsewhere.
How far down this road will Ford go?
In all likelihood, Ford will make sure that its F-Series fans feel at home in the new truck. It should have plenty of improvements along the lines that GM has shown – an improved ride, a nicer interior, and more convenience features – while still delivering the utility and towing capacity that serious truck users expect. And if Ford's other recent products are anything to judge by, it'll look great and sell just fine.
But it's also possible that Ford, feeling the pressure of ever-tightening fuel-economy regulations, will go a little further (or maybe more than a little further) down the gas-saving road than buyers expect. A hybrid pickup is likely to raise some eyebrows among truck fans, but if it performs well, objections will fade.
Aluminum body panels or frames could be a tougher sell, though. If a pickup isn't seen as rugged, it'll struggle in the marketplace. To hang on to its class-leading position, Ford will have to prove that its new F-150 is an improvement in all ways over the great truck it's replacing – and that's always a challenge with diehard truck buyers. We'll see how this plays out next year.