There's absolutely no doubt that Ford Motor Company's (NYSE:F) launch of the 2015 F-150 was the most important and risky vehicle launch in years. It's Ford's best-selling vehicle, and its most profitable product, and if something were to go wrong with this vehicle one way or another, it would be devastating for Ford.
Going into the launch, the main theme was how Ford's 2015 F-150 was revolutionary because of its use of aluminum body panels, which save up to 700 pounds on certain models and increase fuel economy. Then the unthinkable happened: Gas prices plunged, and many investors wondered if the hype surrounding the vehicle's improved fuel economy had just become irrelevant. Essentially, many wondered if consumers would pay top dollar -- the F-150 generates more sales above $50,000 than any other vehicle in the U.S. -- for a perk that has been essentially negated by crashing gas prices.
Not so fast
As you would expect, Ford's CEO, Mark Fields, believes otherwise. Fields was recently quoted as saying that regardless of the vehicle segment, and regardless of whether gas is $2 or $4, consumers still want fuel economy, which has specifically been the "number one dissatisfier over many years" in the pickup segment.
Fields also has been on record saying that despite the plunge in gas prices, Ford still would have chosen to go more revolutionary rather than evolutionary with the important 2015 F-150 redesign. In my view, the revolutionary move to use more aluminum is absolutely the right one, regardless of gas price fluctuations. CAFE standards, which are regulations stipulating that automakers make their entire fleet more fuel-efficient, aren't going anywhere, and with the F-Series representing nearly one-third of Ford's sales, Ford needs to squeeze the maximum fuel economy out of that vehicle to help improve the overall fleet miles per gallon.
The good news
Despite Fields' defense of the F-150, some people needed more convincing that Ford's most important vehicle was still going to succeed -- despite the product's high cost -- amid lower gas prices. Fortunately, J.D. Power & Associates just released a new study covering the top reasons consumers buy vehicles, and the results are music to Ford's ears.
Essentially, the study proves exactly what Mark Fields believed. Despite gas prices falling to levels not seen since around 2010, fuel economy was the most influential factor among the majority of new-vehicle buyers, for a fourth consecutive year, according to J.D. Power.
"Consumers know that, although gas prices are low today, the cost of fuel will likely increase during the time they own their vehicle," said Arianne Walker, senior director of automotive media and marketing at J.D. Power, in a press release. "Clearly, consumers are considering the total cost of ownership when selecting their new vehicle."
Ultimately, in my opinion, lower gas prices never seemed like a threat to the F-Series' sales. The argument could easily be made that lower gas prices could even fuel sales of larger vehicles like pickups, in which case the F-150's fuel economy would simply be icing on the cake.
No matter how you slice it, Ford's revolutionary approach to using aluminum on its truck body is a competitive advantage, regardless of where gas prices are now and where they go from here. J.D. Power merely proved it.