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Ford's New Pickup Line: Like My Tough V-6?

Are U.S. and Canadian pickup truck buyers prepared to set aside their love affair with V-8 engines and climb into more fuel-efficient models instead?  Ford Motor Company is about to run a high-stakes test of this by promoting a high-tech, six-cylinder engine in its best-selling vehicle.

This fall, Ford will introduce a 300 horsepower V-6 engine and a new six-speed transmission in its F-150 pickups—the No. 1 seller in a market where eight cylinders now rule. And for the first time, Ford will offer a V-6 in its popular crew cab model, which accounts for 60% of all F-150 sales, says F-150 marketing manager Mark Grueber.

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The F-150 XLT Super-Cab 4×4 will appear in early 2011 in a V-6 engine.

Ford will also sell F-150s with a new 5.0 liter V-8 engine. Early next year, the company plans to start marketing F-150s with a 3.5 liter “Ecoboost” V-6 potent enough to tow an 11,300 pound trailer—big enough to haul a rodeo bull or two—that get up to 20% better fuel economy than a V-8 with comparable power.

Why is Ford pushing this strategy? The company is hedging the risk that its highly profitable vehicle line could get battered by another run-up in gasoline prices. It also must meet federal fuel economy rules that will steadily ratchet up the minimum mileage required for all vehicles.

In the past, Ford has offered V-6 engines only in its most basic, two-door F-150 trucks, primarily purchased for farms or work crews.

Ford sold more than 500,000 F-series trucks in 2009, and sales are up nearly 35% through the end of July this year. The F-series has been the best-selling model line in the U.S. for 28 years—ahead of the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry and rival pickups such as the Chevy Silverado.

That means that in the heart of Ford’s pickup lineup, there will be two V-6 engines on offer and just one V-8 – setting aside a few limited production models that will come with a king-size, 6.2 liter V-8.

Residents of Manhattan or Beverly Hills may not drive very many of what the industry still calls “full-size pickups.” But in the rest of America, Large pickups such as the F-150, Chevrolet Silverado, Toyota Tundra, Dodge Ram and Nissan Titan are huge sellers. They are mainstream rides in rural America and anywhere you go in Texas. Many are used for work, and often double as personal transportation after 5 p.m.  Done up nice, a loaded F-150 Platinum model sells for about $45,000. You could buy a BMW for that money, but how would you haul that new aging barrel to your vineyard?

Most of these trucks roar off dealer lots with big, V-8 engines under the hood and combined city/highway mileage ratings in the vicinity of 17 to 18 miles per gallon.  The federal fuel economy rules that have made V-8 powered cars scarce since the 1980s let V-8 powered pickups ride on by!

Now, the government is pushing auto makers to make even big pickups more efficient, the better to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Truck buyers, however, are not prepared to go back to the 1950s, when a Ford F-100 truck came with six-cylinder engines that only offered 115 horsepower.

On Edmunds.com, the automotive shopping site, just 10.1% of customers shopping for a Chevrolet Silverado signaled an interest in a six-cylinder model. Only 2.2% of Toyota Tundra buyers wanted a V-6. Put another way, the classic, fin-tailed American car with a big V-8 under the hood didn’t die. It became a pickup.

Ford now plans to try to re-educate at least some of its V-8-loving customers—and capture a new generation more open to the idea that technology can decouple power from size.

The Ford logo is displayed at a Ford dealership in Wisconsin.

Ford is already working on its most important customers: dealers. The company has given dealers and sales people early opportunities to drive the new F-150s with the “Ecoboost” V-6. Later on, the company plans to invite potential buyers to test drive events in seven cities.

Some big Ford dealers say they’re on board with the strategy—provided the price is right.

Bert Boeckmann, owner of Galpin Ford in North Hills, Calif., says he learned to be careful years ago not to push a “V-8 guy” into a six-cylinder car. “He kept telling you about the power he was missing,” he says. But Mr. Boeckmann says he’s persuaded that with Ford’s new V-6, many V-8 buyers won’t be able to tell the difference in a test drive.

The wild card is price. Ford wants an unspecified premium for the high-tech Ecoboost, which uses turbo-charging technology to get its power. If that premium is too steep, Mr. Boeckmann says many customers will stick with the V-8.

AutoNation, the largest U.S. auto retailing chain, said, in a statement, it will take as many of the V-6 F-150s as it can get because fuel economy is paramount to buyers.

Rivals say they’re more skeptical, and are biding their time. Customers “don’t want a high priced V-6,” says Chevrolet Silverado marketing manager Tony Truelove. General Motors Co.’s Silverado, No. 2 in the market to the F-series line, has boasted this year of having the best fuel economy in the segment. Ford says it now will have that honor. Mr. Truelove says Chevy will strike back, and he doesn’t rule out a high-tech V-6 or a new diesel as weapons. Federal fuel economy rules likely will give them little choice.

There’s also a generational shift that could propel change in this tradition-bound vehicle segment, says IHS Automotive analyst Devin Lindsay. “New truck buyers, Gen X and Gen Y, are growing up in turbo cars,” he says. “It’s not that much of a leap to consider a turbo truck.”

August 18, 2010 WSJ

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