Road Ahead

Aluminum Will Bury ‘Soda Can’ Image in 2014

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Once Ford starts rolling out its massive marketing and training programs for the new F-150, expect it to finish the job Range Rover has started and aluminum’s soft “soda can” image will be buried for good.

“Don’t touch the car, it’s made of aluminum.” That was my first youthful introduction to the automotive use of the light metal: It was soft, expensive and better left alone by curious 12-year-olds.

My parents’ neighbor had a yellow Ferrari and whenever he parked it out front in the summer; my friends and I were drawn to it like flies to flypaper.  

If the owner had been truthful, and simply told us to keep our filthy little paw prints off his prized possession, I would have emerged from adolescence with a more accurate understanding of automotive materials. Instead, like many people, I spent years thinking aluminum vehicles had the structural integrity of a soda can.

In reality, despite aluminum’s light weight, some of the strongest, sturdiest vehicles on earth are made from the material: aircraft, spacecraft and countless battlefield vehicles, including the original H1 Hummer.

Jaguar Land Rover is hammering this point home as it rolls out its second all-aluminum CUV, the Range Rover Sport. It shares the automaker’s all-new aluminum unibody architecture with the larger ’13 Range Rover flagship introduced last year.

The architecture replaces the previous generation’s integrated body frame that featured a steel unibody mounted on a full-frame chassis. Switching to aluminum reduces overall body and chassis weight 39%, amounting to an astonishing 800-lb. (363 kg) weight reduction for U.S. models.

Range Rover officials say the new architecture represents several breakthroughs, including the first automotive use of high-strength AC300 aluminum within the crash structure and vehicle body sides that are formed as single aluminum panels, reducing the number of joints and improving structural integrity.

Weighing between 4,427 lbs. (2,144 kg) and 5,093 lbs. (2,310 kg) depending on engine size, the truck is hardly a lightweight, but the incredibly stiff body combined with Ranger Rover’s advanced suspension design and dynamic chassis control technologies make the CUV surprisingly agile with very little body roll or understeer. Fuel economy and emissions also are improved significantly.

During the recent U.S. press launch of the Range Rover Sport, the auto maker took pains to prove the truck is unmatched in its ability to cope with the most extreme, bone-jarring off-road conditions, sometimes putting two wheels in the air to crawl through deep ruts.

Even so, Michael Levitan, a major Jaguar and Land Rover dealer based in Long Island, NY, acknowledges some customers are concerned when they learn the body material has changed. 

“When they hear aluminum, their first reaction is a Pepsi can. Who wants to get hit in a Pepsi can?”

However, Levitan says once salespeople explain the strengths of aluminum, how the vehicle structure is put together with aerospace joining techniques, and that it is the strongest body JLR has ever produced, their fears usually are dispelled.

Extensive training of dealership personnel about the vehicle’s construction and its capabilities has helped. “It’s the best training I’ve ever seen,” Levitan says.

And, many Range Rover owners do like to put their vehicles to the test, slogging through mud and ruts even with top-of-the-line $135,000 vehicles, Levitan says.  His dealerships host several off-road training events every year for about 50 customers, and some attendees want him to host even more, he says.

The Range Rover Sport is the sixth all-aluminum model from JLR since the Jaguar XJ was introduced in 2001. Jaguar unveiled an all-aluminum small CUV concept at the Frankfurt auto show. 

Aluminum supplier Novelis says in five years, numerous high-volume, aluminum-intensive passenger vehicles will be in showrooms.

The most significant coming down the road is the ’15 Ford F-150 pickup, expected to go on sale around October 2014. The F-Series has defined itself for the past six decades or so as the toughest light vehicle in the marketplace.

Once Ford starts rolling out its massive marketing and training programs for the new F-150, expect it to finish the job Range Rover has started and aluminum’s soft, crinkly “soda can” image will be buried for good.

You can bet not a single owner of a ’15 Ford F-150 will tell curious kids: “Don’t touch the truck. It’s aluminum.”

dwinter@wardsauto.com

Discuss this Blog Entry 6

on Oct 9, 2013

Nice story, Drew.

on Oct 10, 2013

Aluminum is fine on the upscale cars that are fixed in specialized body shops (al-welding equipment). For the truck guys who want to do it themselves (fixing, adding) selling aluminum will be a challenge. If I was at Ford deciding, I would start using Al with lower volume product.

on Oct 10, 2013

Historically knowledgeable off-roaders have a great deal of respect for aluminum. While the Range Rover and Range Rover Sport may be the first aluminum unibody utilities the firm has launched, the original Land Rover (1948-1985) boasted an all-aluminum body; in this case mounted atop a conventional steel chassis.

on Oct 10, 2013

Using aluminum extensively on a high-volume everyday vehicle like a pickup truck certainly represents a risk, but with typical pickups now costing $30,000-$40,000, number of owners who do more than basic maintenance is dwindling. Ford already started with lower-volume products during its ownership of Jaguar.

on Oct 11, 2013

How will it affect the average price of say a F-150? Say the average price is around $30k, now you put an aluminum body on it. The price per lb for aluminum is 3 to 4 times that of steel. Does that jack the prices up to keep even a modest truck enthusiast from purchasing one?

on Oct 11, 2013

We will have to wait until Q3 2014 when the vehicle is expected to go on sale for a definitive answer. But the short answer is F-150 is the No. 1 selling truck in the U.S. and I'm sure Ford does not plan to give up that status and give up much pricing ground to its superbly engineered competitors (which also use a fair amount of the metal). Aluminum is much more expensive than steel on per-pound basis, but its impact on overall cost of the truck can be minimized through design and production efficiencies, as well as avoiding future costs related to upcoming fuel-economy and emissions rules.

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Drew Winter is Editor-in-Chief of WardsAuto World magazine and a Senior Editor at WardsAuto.com. He was won numerous awards for his work in both print and digital media and has been...

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