Ford F-Series on track to extend sales streak

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

San Diego — Ford Motor Company and industry analysts say the Ford F-Series pickup is on track to sell more than 800,000 in 2016 for the first time since 2005. That staggering figure will mark a milestone 40th straight year that the F-Series has been the best-selling pickup in the U.S. market.

And it also affirms one of the biggest gambles any automaker has made in the U.S. marketplace: production of the first all-aluminum, full-size pickup.

Two years ago, Ford bet its franchise vehicle on the wholesale changeover to an aluminum skin. Facing a doubling of government fuel-economy standards by 2025, Ford wagered the lighter material would both improve EPA fuel numbers while also advancing performance.

“Question asked and answered,” said Truck Group Marketing Manager Doug Scott here at the media launch of the F-Series latest model, the terrain-chewing F-150 Raptor sport truck. “The answer was our light-weighting strategy has given the truck owner more of everything they wanted: more payload, more towing, better acceleration, better fuel economy, better vehicle dynamics.”

The F-Series success comes despite daunting manufacturing challenges and a fusillade of negative advertising from Ford competitors. Prior to Ford’s investment, Chevrolet’s steel Silverado pickup had been the class lightweight. With Ford’s aluminum diet making headlines, Chevy fired back in a series of high-profile TV ads suggesting that aluminum compromised the pickup’s core promise: strength.

Yet, despite months of Chevy ads showing bears stalking aluminum cages and concrete blocks puncturing F-150 beds, F-Series sales — which include the F-150 and F-250 trucks — are growing. With one month to go in 2016, F-Series sales are 733,287 to 213,000 more than nearest competitor Silverado, a 35 percent increase in the margin over 2015.

“There’s no doubt they’ll make 800,000 by the end of the year,” says Karl Brauer, a senior auto analyst with Kelley Blue Book. “The switch to aluminum hasn’t hurt them at all. Any concerns have been offset by a laundry list of advanced equipment on the F-Series.”

Indeed, the F-Series’ metal swap coincided with a wave of technical advancements including more fuel-efficient 2.7-liter and 3.5-liter turbocharged V-6 engines, 360-degree camera, mirror-mounted floodlights, LED box lighting, versatile box cleats and trailer back-up assist.

“Light-weighting is an enabler like no other material,” says John Thomas, global auto marketing manager for Ford’s aluminum supplier, Arconic, the once-parent company of Alcoa. “It helps engineers seek better solutions for towing and hauling — and make powertrain selections that advance fuel economy and power.”

Arconic’s challenge was formidable — up its production of military-grade aluminum to feed the best-selling vehicle in the American market. And deliver it on time to pickup factories in Dearborn and Kentucky being retooled for the new material.

Truck marketing chief Scott says the switch to aluminum has not sacrificed F-series’ bottom line. “Overall F-Series transaction price is highest in the industry and Super Duty is transacting $10,000 a unit higher than the 2016,” he says. “The F-150 transaction price is $1,500 to $3,000 higher than our competitors.”

Scott largely attributes the 2016 sales surge — up nearly 40,000 units over 2015 — to the introduction of the 2017 F-250 Super Duty which launched three months ago. It is, he says, “exceeding expectations.”

Ford hopes the second generation 2017 Raptor will continue to buff the Blue Oval’s shine. Shipping this week to dealers, the aluminum (with exclusive, plastic-composite front end) Raptor — the only full-size, off-road performance pickup in the market — loses 500 pounds over the previous generation while gaining 39 horsepower and an industry-first quick-shifting, 10-speed transmission (co-developed, ironically, with truck nemesis General Motors).

The Raptor will sell for between $50,000 and $68,000, part of an F-Series sales band that ranges from the $26,000 base model to $90,000-plus for upper trim Super Dutys — a price breadth rivaled only by high-end supercars like the Porsche 911.

To put the F-Series sales volumes in perspective, a TrueCar.com found study that — if you define luxury vehicles as $50,000-plus — the F-Series would be far and away the world’s biggest luxury automaker. Some 25 percent — more than 200,000 — of F-Series sales are over $50,000.

“This will be quite a year,” says Scott. “Our highest volume year since 2005 when we did 901,000. An amazing accomplishment 40 years as bestselling truck in America. It’s unmatched in the industry.”

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne