June 3, 2014 at 5:58 pm

Ford reduces Fusion concept's weight 23%

A mid-size Fusion that weighs about 2,400 pounds, or 800 pounds less than the lightest Fusion you can currently buy — and nearly the same weight as a subcompact Fiesta. (Ford Motor Co.)

Dearborn —Previewing an example of materials that could be used in future models, Ford Motor Co. has rebuilt a 2013 Fusion using a combination of high-strength steel, aluminum, magnesium and carbon fiber, mixed with some polycarbonate glazing.

The result: A mid-size Fusion that weighs about 2,400 pounds, or 800 pounds less than the lightest Fusion you can currently buy — and nearly the same weight as a subcompact Fiesta. The 800-pound diet equals a 23 percent weight reduction, and coupled with Ford’s 1-liter, three-cylinder EcoBoost engine, translates to about a 15 percent fuel efficiency boost. That would give Fusion a mid-to-upper 40s highway fuel efficiency sticker number, in line with only a handful of currently available subcompacts.

So when can you buy one? Probably never.

For starters, Ford hasn’t even driven the concept vehicle yet, and the materials and manufacturing cost of aluminum, magnesium and carbon fiber remain too high for a mass-market car. Company reps did not disclose how much the prototype would cost if it went into production.

A 15 percent gain in fuel efficiency sounds great, but as automakers strive for the fleetwide mandate of 54.5 mpg by 2025, Ford’s at-any-cost effort puts into context the difficult task manufacturers face in trying to meet federal fuel economy standards.

The entirety of the concept seems a bit unrealistic, and has some similarities to high-efficiency concepts of the past that never hit public roads. Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, Ford, GM and Chrysler teamed up to develop three diesel hybrid cars: the GM Precept, Ford Prodigy and Chrysler ESX-3. All got at least 72 miles per gallon. None were ever produced.

But Ford, in showing the concept Fusion, is making the point that advanced materials remain a viable alternative — if and when the price is right.

“The technology is not a leap of faith,” said Matt Zaluzec, Ford’s technical leader for global materials and manufacturing research. “And there is no stone unturned these days.”

Ford, of course, is in the midst of the biggest materials shift the auto industry has seen. The automaker’s new F-150 pickup — in showrooms later this year — has an aluminum body and is 700 pounds lighter than the current truck.

Ford’s concept was a result of a $10 million U.S. Department of Energy grant the company obtained by drawing up a proposal with auto supplier Magna International.

The lightweight Fusion concept has a carbon-fiber oil pan, polycarbonate windows, aluminum brake rotors that are covered in steel, smaller tires and aluminum sheetmetal.

But price is an issue. Making a seat frame out of mostly carbon-fiber composite instead of steel, for example, could reduce weight by about two pounds. But the variable cost of the frame — or cost that varies based on production volume — would be $53 to $73.

For steel, the variable cost, or in this case, true cost, is $12.

“I’m not even sure our [special vehicle team] would pay that price,” said David Wagner, Ford’s technical leader of vehicle design, tongue in cheek.

The lightweight Fusion concept moves the ball down the field when it comes to materials (and to a lesser extent, with the 1-liter, three-cylinder engine), though there are still more fuel-efficiency upgrades to be tried.

Bob Lutz, former vice chairman at GM, told The Detroit News earlier this year that he believes automakers will have to use more than just advanced materials.

“It’s always going to be a combination of solutions — partly engines, partly transmissions, partly materials, partly aerodynamics, partly plug-in hybrid,” Lutz said. “There’s so many ways to get there and there is no single best way.”

Skepticism about expensive technology to meet federal fuel economy standards is nothing new. Sergio Marchionne, CEO of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV, has said the cost-benefit analysis of building an aluminum-bodied pickup truck doesn’t work in his favor, but he said he is willing to follow Ford’s lead.

Marchionne has said he prefers that customers don’t buy the electric Fiat 500, because he says the automaker loses $14,000 on each one it sells.

Some automakers, like Toyota Motor Corp., have chosen to go with hybrids to help meet the standards, and General Motors Co. is bringing back smaller pickups to better its fuel efficiency numbers.

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