Posted Tuesday, Sep. 21, 2010
By Bob Cox
Ford Motor Co. is betting that some pickup drivers are ready to break with the bigger-is-better mantra when it comes to engines and step down to trucks that cost less to fill up at the gas pump.
Faced with stricter government fuel economy regulations and anticipating higher gasoline prices, Ford is offering four more fuel-efficient engines in its 2011 F-150 pickups, including two six-cylinder models.
The new engines are tied to six-speed automatic transmissions, electric-assisted power steering and other technological improvements that squeeze more from a gallon of fuel. With them, Ford hopes to reach buyers looking for both performance and more miles per gallon.
“The No.1 unmet need in the [pickup] market today is fuel economy,” said Doug Scott, truck group marketing manager for Ford.
The official Environmental Protection Agency fuel economy ratings for the F-150s with the new engines haven’t been released. Ford officials are confident that as a group the engines will produce a 20 percent improvement in miles per gallon.
At the same time, the company hopes the models will improve Ford’s standing in the more rigorous government-mandated corporate average fuel economy standards for light trucks, which will increase in 2016.
The F-150 has been the top-selling full-size pickup in the U.S. for decades.
The star in the new lineup is the EcoBoost V-6, a twin-turbocharged, fuel-injected engine that sips fuel like a V-6 in normal conditions but can produce power and torque like a V-8 when needed.
In a test drive on country roads through areas of Tarrant, Parker, Denton and Wise counties, a lavishly equipped F-150 cruised up and down hills and in stop-and-go driving, and the fuel economy gauge showed 23.4 miles per gallon. When the gas pedal was pressed for power, the turbochargers kicked in and the unloaded truck practically leapt forward.
Powerful V-8 engines have long dominated the pickup market as ranchers, farmers and boat owners sought to haul heavier loads and pull bigger trailers. An F-150 with the new EcoBoost V-6 will have payload and towing capabilities comparable to one with the most powerful 6.2-liter V-8 but would be more economical when not in heavy-duty use.
The EcoBoost V-6 will also require routine maintenance — oil changes, spark plug changes and so on — less often because it will operate cleaner and more efficiently and at lower temperatures.
Persuading Texas truck owners to switch from V-8 engines will be an uphill task at first, said Charlie Gilchrist, owner of Southwest Ford in Weatherford.
“To the guy that is pulling a boat, hauling hay, they like their big engines,” Gilchrist said. “But this [EcoBoost] is the engine of the future.”
The key for Ford dealers will be to get Texans out to look at the new trucks, Gilchrist said. “I really believe once people drive it they will be sold,” he said.
Ford officials paint the new engine technology as all about improved fuel economy. But the company is doing away with its smaller, thrifty Ranger compact pickup after the 2011 model year and wants to move Ranger buyers into F-150s.
“If they’re able to keep two out of three Ranger buyers by offering [six-cylinder models], that will be a good thing for Ford,” said Jesse Toprak, auto market analyst for the TrueCar.com consumer advisory service.
The 2011 models will begin showing up at Ford dealers before year’s end. The EcoBoost six-cylinder won’t be available until spring.
Ford hasn’t offered a six-cylinder F-150 since 2008, and the old 4.2-liter, 200-horsepower engine accounted for only about 15 percent of the company’s pickup sales. Toprak said 15 percent of the market is probably a reasonable initial expectation for the new engines.
Ford’s competitors are probably already working on their own engines with similar technology, but Gilchrist said he’s expecting heavy doses of Dodge and Chevy ads pointing out that their trucks have big V-8s.
“They’re going to show a guy driving up next to a Ford and saying, ‘You got a Hemi in that.'”
But when word gets out about the fuel economy and power combination of the new engine, Gilchrist said, he expects that the trucks won’t stay on the lot long.
Bob Cox, 817-390-7723