Ford’s F series truck, America’s best-selling vehicle for three decades running, has been successful largely because of its reputation for strength and durability. As the ads have said over and over, the truck is famously built “Ford Tough.” With its recent announcement of plans to swap out steel for lightweight aluminum in the body of trucks, however, Ford seems to be messing with a winning formula.
Among trucks, “steel long has been the gold standard,” in the words of industry publication Wards Auto. They don’t call Superman the “Man of Aluminum,” do they? Steel is simply deemed tougher, stronger, and more durable than aluminum. The monosyllabic word “steel” even sounds tougher than the highfalutin “aluminum.”
Nonetheless, as the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and others have reported, Ford hopes to sub in aluminum in the body of its F-150 truck to cut the vehicle’s weight by 700 pounds. The move actually increases Ford’s costs—aluminum is pricier than steel—but a significantly lighter truck body allows Ford to get by with a lighter engine. When all of the weight-reducing changes are factored in, the truck could see improvements in fuel economy up to 25%.
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Better mileage is the bottom line here, as Ford and other automakers struggle to meet across-the-board new federal fuel economy standards that go into effect starting in 2016. Ford’s newly designed aluminum-heavy (or aluminum-light, as it were) truck is expected to hit the marketplace in 2014. For now at least, only the F-150 will be getting the aluminum makeover; Ford’s heavier-duty trucks, such as the F-250, are sticking with steel as they don’t fall under the same mileage standards.
One Colorado car dealer told the WSJ, “There is going to be a certain percentage of the people that will bitch and complain” about the change to aluminum. “But they will ultimately get that vehicle … They may hold off for a little and keep their old ones longer. Then they will buy a new one.”
Analysts seem to agree that any initial skepticism among consumers regarding the usage of aluminum in trucks will be replaced by acceptance. “I think that in the long run, truck buyers will come to embrace the increased use of aluminum in full-size pickup trucks, although initially, you may have some of the longtime F-Series faithful balk at the prospect of a lighter and perceivably less ‘Ford Tough’ pickup,” Alec Gutierrez, senior market analyst of automotive insights for Kelley Blue Book, wrote via e-mail. “Once the Ford faithful take the time to drive the new trucks, I believe they will be sold due to the decreased weight allowing for a better handling and more efficient truck in terms of fuel efficiency and power delivery.”
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The truth is there isn’t anything particularly radical or new about infusing aluminum in cars. The Audi A8 made its debut several years ago with an aluminum frame, giving it an edge in the luxury sedan category with lower weight, and the F-150 itself has had an aluminum hood since 2004. “Lots of drivers don’t know what kind of metal is in their cars,” said Michelle Krebs, a senior analyst for Edmunds. “So long as the truck does what they need a truck to do, drivers won’t care about Ford’s changes.”
Krebs noted that it’s fitting that Ford, under the leadership of CEO Alan Mulally, is the first to move beyond steel in trucks: “Mr. Mulally’s background is in the airline business, where they use a lot of aluminum. It’s not surprising Ford is out in front on this.”
It’s widely expected that rivals Chrysler and GM will follow suit by incorporating aluminum and/or other lightweight materials in their trucks in the near future. “Every company has to figure out how to cut weight,” said Krebs. “It’s just a fact.”
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As for whether buyers will balk when lighter trucks hit the market, both Krebs and Gutierrez pointed out that there was originally plenty of concern that drivers wouldn’t buy a truck with a V6 engine—but that Ford, with the V6 ecoboost in the F-150 proved the skeptics wrong. According to Gutierrez:
Many truck owners were reluctant to embrace the ecoboost V6 since in their eyes, a truck isn’t a truck without a big V8. After driving it though, the smooth power delivery, increased fuel-efficiency and lighter weight have come to be valued by F-150 owners and have led to sales far surpassing Ford’s initial expectations.
Questions regarding aluminum-vs.-steel trucks will have to be answered in time. How much more expensive will aluminum-frame vehicles be? How will aluminum handle accidents compared to steel? Perhaps most importantly: Can an aluminum-frame truck truly be as tough as its best-selling, steel-based predecessor?
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Some worries should subside with the realization that all newly designed vehicles will have to meet not only fuel economy standards, but safety standards as well.
Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.