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Mixed crash-test results for aluminum Ford F-150s

David Shepardson, and Michael Martinez

Washington — A tough, independent crash test shows aluminum can be a safe material for pickup bodies. But two Ford F-150 models with different configurations — one a crew cab and the other an extended cab — scored far differently in safety tests.

2015 Ford F-150 crew cabThis crash test duplicates what happens when the front corner of the vehicle hits a utility pole at 40 mph. In the crew cab, the dummy's position in relation to the door frame, steering wheel, and instrument panel after the crash test indicates that the driver's survival space was maintained well. But in the extended cab, the truck’s structure fared poorly.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety on Thursday awarded Ford’s 2015 F-150 four-door crew cab its coveted Top Safety Pick. Its sister version, the two-door extended cab, got only a marginal rating in a test that measures what happens when the front corner of a vehicle hits a utility pole at 40 mph.

F-150s are the only aluminum-bodied trucks on the market, and were the first full-size pickups to undergo IIHS testing of the so-called small overlap crash test.

“Consumers who wondered whether the aluminum-body F-150 would be as crash-worthy as its steel-body predecessor can consider the question answered,” said David Zuby, chief research officer at the Virginia-based industry group. Repair costs for low-speed fender-benders, IIHS noted, were 26 percent higher for the aluminum-body trucks than their steel-body 2014 predecessors.

2015 Ford F-150 extended cabafter the small overlap crash test. The dummy's position in relation to the door frame, steering wheel, and instrument panel after the crash test indicates that the driver's survival space wasn't maintained well.

The IIHS praised and criticized Ford.

“Ford added structural elements to the crew cab’s front frame to earn a good small overlap rating and a Top Safety Pick award, but didn’t do the same for the extended cab,” Zuby added.

“That shortchanges buyers who might pick the extended cab thinking it offers the same protection in this type of crash as the crew cab. It doesn’t.”

Ford spokesman Mike Levine said the improvement was made to the best-selling version crew cab and will be added to the other versions.

“The F-150 program was well underway when this test mode was introduced. We addressed the IIHS small overlap front crash in the 2015 F-150 SuperCrew — which accounts for 83 percent of 2015 F-150 retail sales — and are adding countermeasures in the SuperCab and Regular Cab in the 2016 model year,” Levine said.

The SuperCab — or extended cab — accounts for about 12 percent of sales and the regular cab 5 percent. IIHS hasn’t rated the regular cab. The F-Series has been the nation’s best-selling vehicle for the last 33 years.

Automakers routinely upgrade vehicles to meet IIHS tests and many consumers consult the ratings before buying vehicles. Automakers are quick to tout “Top Safety Picks” in advertising.

Typically, IIHS has tested only the best-selling version, but because the F-Series is such a big seller, it decided to rate two versions. “What’s more, even the lower-selling extended cab sales top those of many of the passenger vehicles we rate,” Zuby said.

IIHS put the industry on notice that it will test multiple versions. “We expect them to make the changes in their other pickup variants as well,” IIHS spokesman Russ Rader said.

Other pickup tests on deck

While the F-150 is the first pickup to be rated in the smaller-overlap crash test, trucks from General Motors Co., Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV, Nissan Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. will be tested over the next six months.

The test is more difficult than the head-on crashes conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It poses a challenge for the vehicle to manage crash energy.

In the IIHS F-150 crew cab test, the occupant compartment remained intact. “The front-end structure crumpled in a way that spared the occupant compartment significant intrusion and preserved survival space for the driver,” IIHS said.

In the IIHS test for the extended cab, the intruding structure after the crash “seriously compromised a driver’s survival space, resulting in a poor structural rating,” IIHS said.

The toe pan, parking brake and brake pedal were pushed back about a foot toward the dummy, and the dashboard was jammed against the dummy’s lower legs.

Tests suggested there would be a moderate risk of injuries to the right thigh, lower left leg and left foot in a real-world crash of this severity. The steering column was pushed back nearly 8 inches and came dangerously close to the dummy’s chest. The dummy’s head barely contacted the front air bag before sliding to the left and hitting the instrument panel.

“In a small-overlap front crash like this, there’s no question you’d rather be driving the crew cab than the extended cab F-150,” Zuby said.

Rivals — especially GM — have been eager to raise questions about the strength of the aluminum version. GM has a series of ads that include a live bear with people asked to choose between aluminum and steel cages. Not surprisingly, they choose steel.

Fender bender costs

Besides the high-speed test, the IIHS staged 10 mph fender benders with the 2015 F-150 crew cab and the 2014 steel version.

In both scenarios, the aluminum F-150 had more extensive damage than the steel model. Total repair costs for the front and rear damage combined were 26 percent higher for the aluminum F-150. “Extra time to repair the aluminum body accounted for the higher price to fix frontal damage, while higher parts costs pushed up the repair bill for the rear damage,” the IIHS said.

The aluminum-bodied truck had to have its bed replaced, while repairs could be made to the steel truck bed.

Ford said it disagreed with the results on repair costs.

In the real world, Ken Overholser, president and owner of Eureka Body and Fender in Wyandotte, said his shop has repaired one F-150 after hail damage left a number of dents. For the most part, he said, costs have been about the same.

“The way they’ve designed it, they’ve made it easier to repair if you have the proper equipment and training,” he said

David Solmes, president of Dewey’s Auto Body shop in Hastings and program instructor for I-CAR, a nonprofit collision-repair industry training organization, said that, in his experience, repair costs for the 2015 truck have been about the same compared to the 2014 steel model. A panel repair estimate he recently wrote cost $31 more for the aluminum truck than the steel one, and a rear box side panel repair estimate was cheaper in the 2015 model.

The biggest issue, Solmes said, is that most vehicle parts are held together through welding, but the aluminum-bodied F-150 is held together through rivets and adhesion.

“I think a lot of people are cautious about it, which they should be,” he said. “It isn’t the same truck it was a year ago. Consumers asking questions and making sure their repair shop is qualified is going to be key.”

Ford last year offered dealers with service shops a voluntary Collision Repair Program that trains workers how to repair the new vehicle; 1,500 signed up. Ford chipped in up to $10,000 in rebates to purchase equipment for aluminum repairs to any interested dealer with a service shop.