How Ford Outsmarted Itself in its bid to Build a Fuel-Efficient Pickup
By Mike Connor
As gas prices spiraled skyward last year, Ford product planners became more than a little concerned over the long term future of the company cash cow, the F-150 pickup. Although the all-new F-150, then undergoing final testing before launch, was a careful evolution of a highly successful formula, no-one knew whether that meant much anymore.
In May, as the average price of a gallon of gas neared $4.00, the F-150 was knocked off the top of the monthly sales charts for the first time in 17 years, outsold by Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Toyota Camry, and Honda Accord. That sent a chill through Dearborn: Ford's product planners knew that for most of the 30-plus years the F-150 had reigned as America's -- the world's -- best selling vehicle, gas had cost $2 a gallon or less. The world had changed. America was changing. Maybe the F-150 would have to change, too.
The solution wasn't rocket science: develop a pickup truck that was smaller and lighter. The product planners looked at three options -- adapting the T6 Ranger pickup being developed by Ford Australia for the world market; engineering a unibody pickup off the Ford Flex's D4 platform; or engineering a lighter, more fuel efficient truck using as much existing F-150 hardware as possible.
The T6 Ranger was discounted because it was simply too small. A D4-based unibody truck looked costly and time consuming. That left a lighter truck built around the new F-150 hardware.
The more the product planners looked at it, the more appealing the idea appeared. The new F-150 frame, designed to deliver maximum towing and payload capacity, was stoutly engineered, and therefore heavy. A revised frame, built to the smaller 126 in. and 133 in. F-150 wheelbases (which would allow a regular cab model with a 6.5 ft bed and a Supercab model with a 5.5 ft bed) and optimized for lower towing and payload, could be made lighter. Lighter wheels, tires, and suspension components could be used.
Body-on-frame construction mean a unique cab and front clip could be relatively inexpensively engineered. The F-150 beds could be carried over. Powertrains would be Ecoboost four cylinder and V-6 turbos. The V-6 looked especially promising -- even in a relatively mild state of tune the 3.7-liter turbo could pump out more power and torque than the F-150's base V-8.
It seemed a no brainer. But then the Ford truck guys started thinking about capability. Capability -- towing and payload capacity -- is to truck guys what sub-four second 0-60 mph times and 190 mph top ends are to performance enthusiasts. The initial discussions centered around a 5500 lb towing capacity, because, as Ford product chief Derrick Kuzak points out, "a towing capacity of 5000 lb covers 80 percent of the trailer towing done in America". This was rounded up to 6000 lb.
The old-school Ford truck guys weren't happy, though. The F-150 could tow 11,300 lb, more than anything in its class. They reasoned that if the F-100 was to be Ford truck tough it, too, would need an impressive towing number. They picked, quite arbitrarily, say my sources, 7500 lb. That pushed up the overall vehicle weight. It pushed up cost. It killed engine choices. And in the end, it killed the F-100, too, when Kuzak and marketing boss Jim Farley rightly concluded that suddenly they didn't have the 21st century, $4-a-gallon pickup truck they thought they once had.