Aluminum Ford F-150 will test consumer confidence and repair shops image

Few new models have drawn more headlines lately, and there have been long lines to view the new Ford F-150 at the North American International Auto Show, where the 2015 pickup made its debut last week.

But, after laboring for five years to develop its aluminum F-150, Ford now confronts a new challenge: preventing higher insurance rates and a dearth of mechanics equipped to repair its body from deterring buyers.

Less than 10 % of the more than 30,000 independent repair shops in the US are certified and meet training and equipment requirements to work with most aluminum auto-body parts, according to an estimate by Darrell Amberson, chairman of the Automotive Service Association. While some dealerships do in-house body work, independent businesses handle the vast majority of collision repair in the US, he said.

The question is whether the new full-size truck will be the year’s big success story or one of the auto industry’s historic failures. The 2015 F-150 shifts from a traditional steel body to one made of lightweight aluminum, a move that is expected to yield significant improvements in fuel economy.

While Ford is expected to promote the savings on fuel the new F-150 should yield, the automaker’s marketing manager, Doug Scott, also concedes that truck buyers tend to track costs much more closely than most other vehicle buyers. And one of the key questions is whether the use of aluminum will result in higher long-term operating costs, most notably in terms of durability, reliability and all but inevitable repairs.

Ford truck marketing chief Scott acknowledges this is an issue but says the maker is rapidly trying to bring not only its own dealers but major independent service shops across the country up to speed so an F-150 owner won’t have to worry about repairs.
What remains to be seen, of course, is how the price of those repairs will compare to those on the old, steel-bodied F-150. A significant increase could more than offset the fuel savings of the new truck.

The other big issue yet to be resolved is just how well Ford will be able to launch the new, aluminum F-150. The maker plans a cautious phase-in of the 2015 truck while still producing some of the old models. That could buy time if it runs into any snags.