July 30, 2013

News & Features

Ford eyes Atlas as next step toward keeping F-150 sales on top

The Kansas City Star

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The Ford Atlas is a concept vehicle that shows off possible changes for an updated F-150. (Ford)

Ford Motor Co. figures that Atlas — a titan standing for strength and endurance — is just the right code name for the effort to create the next-generation F-150, the country's best-selling pickup truck.

The Atlas, a concept vehicle showing off possible changes for an updated F-150, was unveiled this year at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

Analysts say the Atlas shows that as the pickup truck market improves along with the economy, Ford is preparing a stiff fight for any competitors trying to dethrone the F-150.

Just this year, both GM and Chrysler unveiled updated models of their most-popular pickups.

At the auto show, the Atlas boasted wheel covers that automatically close to reduce air drag and improve fuel efficiency.

The front grille, a critical part of a pickup's appearance, has been toughened up. And cargo capacity has been expanded with a metal support that pops up out of the tailgate.

The Atlas "is the rallying cry to what the future could bring to the F-series," says lead designer Gordo Platto.

The F-150 revamp is critically important to Ford because the expanding economy, especially the housing market, has set off a market-share battle for pickups. For decades, Ford has kept the F-150 at the top of the heap.

But the F-150 was last redesigned in 2009, putting Ford behind its competitors' improved pickups.

Although Ford won't confirm it, the F-150 revamp is expected to be offered next year.

Michael Omotoso, an analyst for LMC Automotive, says the F-150's lead in sales could narrow even with a new model.

But the F-150 should retain its role as the country's best-selling pickup. "They obviously know what they are doing," he says.

Ford's two big competitors emerging this year are getting attention.

The Ram 1500 has been winning industry awards, including Motor Trend Truck of the Year. It has rated highway fuel economy of 25 miles per gallon — best in its class — and among other things is mating eight-speed transmissions with its engines.

It also offers special features such as adjustable air suspension, which can lower the cargo bed for easier loading.

"We think it's going to be a very good year," says David Elshoff, a Chrysler spokesperson.
The new Chevrolet Silverado, in second place in sales behind the F-150, is rolling out.

The vehicle and its sister, the GMC Sierra, will rely on V-8 engines for a majority of sales but with fuel efficiency boosted by technology.

It also has a redesigned cab to reduce wind noise, new interiors and a step built into the rear bumper for easier access to the cargo bed. The bed also has LED lights.

"Going from the oldest truck in the segment to the newest gives us a stronger position in the market," says Tom Wilkinson, a GM spokesperson.

Full-size pickups are especially important for Detroit's Big Three, which over the years have largely fought off imports. Through April, they had nearly 80 percent of the U.S. market.

The recession hit pickups hard, but they have rebounded, with sales rising three times faster than for the rest of the auto industry.

The improvement is especially credited to stronger housing starts, which closely track pickup sales.

Also, the average age of pickups on the road is 11 years, making them candidates for replacement, says Erich Merkle, Ford's U.S. sales analyst.

"What is happening that is full-size pickups are an industry in and of itself," he says.
Some pickups are still bought by "air haulers" who rarely use them to carry cargo. But the meat and potatoes of the pickup market is those who need them for work while at the same time using them for other tasks, such as taking their kids to a soccer game.

"They're buying them for work and recreation," says Merkle.

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