Ford Aluminum Body

Ford Aluminum Body: Is It Better Than Steel?

Pickup trucks have typically been made with steel frames and body panels. They’re cheap, tough, easy to fix, and have been the norm for trucks for many years. This is why when the Ford aluminum body debuted back in 2015, it made a huge controversial wave.

We’re going to take a look at this new body material that Ford is using in their F-150 and Super Duty pickup trucks. We’ll explore why they did it, delve deeper into the upsides and downsides, and how it may affect you as a consumer. Let’s begin:

Ford Aluminum Body: What’s The Big Deal?

Okay, so what is the Ford aluminum body? When people talk about Ford’s aluminum body, they’re referring to the aluminum body panels that Ford started using for their Ford F-150.

Specifically, the 13th generation F-150 in 2015 with aluminum body panels. The frame still uses steel, but the body and truck bed uses aluminum as their main material. They have also used aluminum for their Super Duty trucks since the fourth generation that was introduced in 2017.

So, what’s the big deal? Aluminum body panels are of course nothing new. The original Honda NSX had a body entirely made from aluminum, and many cars use aluminum for either the body or frame/chassis. However, it’s practically unheard of in pickup trucks.

Ford Aluminum Body

As with anything that has a large and loyal following like pickup trucks, new and somewhat strange changes are often met with mixed reception, if not a resounding “no” altogether. F-150 enthusiasts are not sure about the change, and industry experts and Ford’s rivals are even more critical.

The reason why it’s so controversial is that, well, it’s out of the norm. It’s as simple as that. Anything that isn’t normal will cause controversy, just look at when Porsche launched the 911 with electronic power steering. They’re perfectly good, but boy did the purists hate that.

Why Ford Is Using Aluminum Body

Despite the mixed reception, Ford is sticking with aluminum as the body material for their new 14th-generation F-150 as well. Of course, it’s not without reason, here are the advantages that aluminum offers and why Ford is sticking with it:

It’s Lighter

The first and biggest advantage is that it’s lighter than steel. They’re about one-third the density of steel. As a result, the vehicle – in this case the F-150 and Super Duty trucks – becomes much lighter and this comes with several benefits.

A lighter car means it will have better performance, both in terms of speed and fuel economy. With less weight, the car can pull away much more effortlessly and faster.

The effortless pull away also means the car won’t need as much throttle input to pull away, leading to better fuel economy. For example, let’s say you typically need 30% to pull away from a dead stop.

But in a lighter car, that throttle input can be less, let’s say at 20%. This means you’re using less fuel to accelerate at the same rate, making the car more fuel-efficient.

Ford Aluminum Body

A lighter car is also likely to have better handling. While suspension setups and center of gravity probably play a larger role in overall handling performance, a lighter body will still help. Otherwise, why would Lotus go through the trouble of reducing weight in their cars?

Anyway, a lighter car won’t necessarily have more grip, but it can change direction quickly and brake faster as well, making it more agile as well as more responsive in an emergency.

It’s Still Relatively Strong

When people think of aluminum they often think of aluminum cans that their coke or beer comes in. Don’t worry, that’s not what Ford is using to make their cars. They use 6000 series aluminum alloy, which Ford advertises as “military-grade” aluminum.

Questionable marketing claim aside, aluminum is a good compromise between strength, cost, and weight. It’s lighter than steel, but it won’t shatter as carbon fiber would nor is it as expensive.

It’s More Rust Resistant

You probably didn’t expect a science lesson when you came to MotorVerso, but put on your science hat because here’s a quick lesson on rust:

If you didn’t know, rust happens when the iron (Fe) in steel is exposed to oxygen and moisture. When steel is exposed to water, the iron particles are lost to the water’s acidic electrolytes and form Fe⁺⁺. Oxygen then causes these electrons to rise and form hydroxyl ions (OH).

Then hydroxyl ions react with the Fe⁺⁺ to form hydrous iron oxide or FeOH, better known to you and me as rust. This is why steel is often mixed with chromium to make them more rust-resistant.

Aluminum on the other hand is inherently more rust-resistant. They can still rust, however, when aluminum rusts, it forms a non-permeable layer. This means water and moisture won’t be able to get through it, preserving the aluminum underneath. As a result, an aluminum body or frame will rust at a slower rate.

So, don’t expect your aluminum F-150 to not rust over the years. Rust will still eventually appear, especially if you live somewhere that snows. This is because the city council often puts salt in the snow to melt them faster so that it’s safe to drive on the road.

The salt in the road can create a chemical reaction that corrodes your car. However, you can expect an aluminum body or frame to rust/corrode at a much slower rate.

Bottom Line: Why Ford Is Using Aluminum Body

The main reason why Ford is using aluminum for their new F-150 and Super Duty trucks is simply because of weight. By using aluminum, they can reduce weight. As a result, the trucks can be faster and more fuel-efficient, not to mention they can haul or tow more load.

As an example, the 2015 F-150 (the first one to use aluminum body panels), sheds around 700lbs from the previous generation. This number varies depending on the cab type and trim, but in general, it’s lighter than the previous generation.

This also helps with towing capacity. Since the truck is lighter, there’s more room for the powertrain to handle bigger towing loads. The number varies depending on the trim and engine, but the 2014 F-150 could tow up to 8,100lbs. On the other hand, the maximum tow load for a 2015 F-150 is 10,400lbs.

One last thing, there are several classifications of trucks in the US. This can affect a number of things, such as road and fuel taxes, access to roadways, and emissions testing.

Ford Aluminum Body: The Arguments Against It

So far aluminum seems so good. But there are arguments against it, which is why other truck makers, such as Dodge, Chevy, and Ram, haven’t followed. Here are the downsides of using aluminum:

It’s Expensive

As raw materials, aluminum is about three times more expensive than steel. Of course, in some cases, it can be cheaper, such as when you compare aluminum with stainless steel. But in general, aluminum is more expensive.

This extra cost in manufacturing will be felt by consumers since manufacturers will often charge that cost to consumers. As an example, the 2014 F-150 had an MSRP of around $25,000. Meanwhile, the 2015 F-150 with an aluminum body starts at $26,615.

Even after accounting for inflation (which was 1.62% at the time), that’s still significantly more. But to be fair to Ford, a price increase of around $1,000 is relatively normal for a new generation of cars. However, customers will usually feel the cost of aluminum when they go to repair their car…

It’s Harder To Repair

Aluminum is malleable and very sensitive to heat. This makes it difficult to weld, as well as more difficult to repair when you have a dent. Part of the reason steel is easier to repair is that it has a sort of “metal memory” which allows it to be more easily returned to its original structure.

This is why when you have a dent, oftentimes you can heat them and then either pull from the outside or push them from the inside to repair them. We explained more on how to do this in our article about bumper repairs.

Ford Aluminum Body

Meanwhile, aluminum conducts heat much more easily than steel. This means that heat travels through aluminum farther and faster. As a result, the excessive heat will compromise the integrity and strength, making it more difficult to repair a dent and possibly creating safety issues due to the compromised integrity.

This also results in more expensive labor rates, as aluminum often requires specialized tools, skills, and more time to repair. Edmunds had a conversation with an autobody repair shop and told them that it costs about $120 per hour to fix aluminum, about double the rate for steel repairs.

It’s Not As Strong As Steel

This is probably aluminum’s biggest criticism. As mentioned, aluminum is around one-third the density of steel, which makes them less strong than steel.

When people buy pickup trucks, they typically expect them to be practical, dependable, and strong. Able to take anything that you can possibly throw at them – quite literally. So you can see why people are worried when Ford switched to aluminum body panels for their trucks.

While it’s generally accepted that steel is stronger than aluminum, as mentioned before, the aluminum Ford uses aren’t exactly tin cans either. Don’t take our word for it, take this video from Edmunds hitting an F-150 with a sledgehammer instead:

Will a steel body panel handle that better? Probably, but we’re pretty satisfied to know that Ford’s aluminum body panel still fares pretty well after being hit by a sledgehammer. If it can handle that, a few rocks hitting the body panels while you’re offroading probably isn’t a big deal.

If safety is a concern, then you’ll be glad to know that the 2015 F-150 still got an overall ‘Good’ rating from the IIHS and a five-star rating in every test by the NHTSA. With the exception of the rollover test which got a four out of five rating, which is pretty normal for a vehicle of this size.

Ford Aluminum Body: Is It The Future?

So, with all this ruckus, are aluminum body panels the future? Ford certainly thinks so when it comes to their pickup trucks. But weirdly, not with their crossover SUVs. Specifically, with their 2020 Ford Explorer where they decided to not use full aluminum body panels.

Some parts and panels are aluminum, but it’s not fully aluminum like their F-150 and Super Duty trucks. Ford says that they utilized steel, aluminum, magnesium, and even plastic in the structure of the Explorer. They explained that the steel industry has been working to make lighter and stronger products.

With these new innovations, they’ve been able to make the new Explorer 200lbs lighter than the previous generation. This is also thanks to using a magnesium beam behind the dashboard, using thinner plastic for air-conditioning ducts, and other weight-saving measures in the chassis.

Car production manufacturing line assembly factory

While this might not sound like much, it’s enough to make a difference. Additionally, the chassis is 36% stiffer which helps with handling and ride comfort. All this means Ford didn’t need to go as far as using full aluminum body panels to save weight.

Ford didn’t explain further why they didn’t use full aluminum body panels on the Explorer, even though it could save even more weight in the Explorer if they did. However, we assume it was to keep costs down and simplify the manufacturing process.

So, while aluminum body panels seem to be going the new norm with Ford trucks, it’s not going to be the norm with other cars in their lineup. It seems that Ford is using aluminum body panels as the last resort to cut weight in their heavier vehicles.

Why Don’t They Use Aluminum For The Frame?

Simple, it has to do with the strength of aluminum. Trucks and SUVs are expected to go offroading, which means their chassis will experience a lot of torsion and twisting. Since aluminum is malleable, they can’t quite resist these loads as well as steel could.

In simple terms, aluminum is simply not strong enough to handle the loads that these trucks are expected to endure. This is part of the reason why trucks and off-road-oriented SUVs still use body-on-frame chassis rather than monocoque since they’re can handle these loads better.

What Dodge And Chevrolet Thinks

Dodge and Chevy are Ford’s biggest rivals when it comes to full-size trucks. Both of them have been critical of Ford’s use of aluminum in their trucks, which is part of the reason why the 2015 F-150 was so controversial.

“We don’t believe in it. We fundamentally don’t believe in it.” Said Alan Batey, General Motors North America president while speaking to Automotive News. That’s not to say that other trucks don’t use aluminum at all. For example, the Silverado uses aluminum for the doors, hood, and tailgate. But fixed panels such as the fenders, roof, and bed are still made out of steel.

Dodge Ram Pickup Truck

They believe that the Silverado didn’t need to go as far as using aluminum for the entire body. This is understandable since the Silverado is already lighter than the F-150.

For example, the 2014 F-150 can weigh as much as 6,113lbs in top-spec. Meanwhile, the 2014 Chevy Silverado tops out 5,292lbs, which makes it around 800lbs lighter. So, you can see where their stance comes from.

How Does This Affect Me?

If you’re thinking of buying a new Ford F-150 or one of their Super Duty trucks, you’re probably wondering how this will affect your ownership experience. The cost and repairability of aluminum may seem like it will affect you negatively, but as far as we can tell, there don’t seem to be any negative effects. Apart from the trucks being more expensive to purchase, that is.

But wait, isn’t it more expensive to fix? That may not be the case. Yes, aluminum is more difficult to fix, therefore requiring more skill and time, and hence higher cost. However, Ford has been training their technicians and independent shops in aluminum repairs and giving certifications to shops and dealerships that completes the training.

These shops now have the knowledge on how to fix the aluminum body and can complete the job faster and more easily. Ultimately lowering the cost and labor rates for consumers. Here’s an explanation from Consumer Reports:

While having aluminum body panels means you won’t be able to fix dents by yourself, it’s not actually that much more expensive to repair – or even replace – aluminum body panels on Ford trucks.

Automotive News also reports that they’re cheaper to repair. A Texas Ford dealership was swarmed with hail-damaged F-150s back in 2017, but thanks to proper training, it ended up costing $2,000 less to repair for consumers. This is mostly thanks to the reduced labor hours to fix the trucks.

I’m Not Convinced, Any Alternatives?

Not convinced about aluminum body panels? Don’t worry, Ford isn’t the only one that makes big trucks. Dodge, Chevy, and even Toyota have some excellent big trucks for you to choose from:

1. Ram 1500

Many consumers still refer to Ram trucks as the “Dodge Ram” but Dodge and Ram became separate brands just a little over a decade ago. They’re still under one company, which is Chrysler which is now under Stellantis, but we digress.

If you’re a Dodge fan, the Ram 1500 is your alternative to the F-150. The starting price is a bit higher at around $34,000 compared to the F-150’s $29,290 MSRP.

Nevertheless, the Ram 1500 is a safe choice if you want a good truck. The interior is luxurious, the ride is comfortable, and it’s very capable off the road. Small wonder this is Car and Driver’s top pick in the full-size pickup class.

If you have an unquenchable thirst for power, then Ram also makes the 1500 TRX. It’s basically a Hellcat in truck form, and it’s a rival for the Ford F-150 Raptor.

It has a 6.2L supercharged V8, 702 horsepower, and 0-60mph time of just 3.7 seconds. It’s completely unnecessary, outrageously expensive, but undeniably desirable.

2. Ram 2500/3500

If you have heavy-duty needs, you need heavy-duty trucks. If you don’t fancy the Ford Super Duty, then consider the Ram 2500 or 3500 series depending on your needs.

The Ram 2500 starts at $37,050, while the larger Ram 3500 starts at $38,565. This is also more expensive than Ford’s offerings, which starts at $36,495 for the F-250 Super Duty. However, the Ram trucks have better rides, as well as a more luxurious interior.

It’s also Car and Driver’s top pick in the heavy-duty truck class. The only thing you should note is that be prepared to deal with old and somewhat sluggish transmissions when you pick the diesel engines.

3. Honorable Mentions

There are plenty more trucks out there you should consider. If you’re looking for an alternative to the F-150, consider the following:

  1. Toyota Tundra
  2. Chevrolet Silverado 1500
  3. GMC Sierra 1500

The Tundra is a particularly good option if you don’t mind the limited engine options. And most importantly: they’re very reliable. If you’re looking for other options for the Ford Super Duty, here are your choices:

  1. Chevrolet Silverado 2500 HD/3500HD
  2. GMC Sierra 2500HD/3500HD
  3. Nissan Titan XD

While the options above are good, we recommend taking another look at the Ram 2500/3500 series once again. It’s MotorTrend’s top pick when it comes to heavy-duty trucks, and they’re the most reliable of the bunch.

Ford Aluminum Body: Wrap Up

So, when you hear someone talk about the Ford aluminum body, they’re talking about the aluminum body panels that Ford use in their F-150 truck since 2015 and their Super Duty trucks since 2017.

While aluminum body panels aren’t new to the automotive industry, it is outside the norm for pickup trucks which is why it caused a big commotion.

There were concerns over the strength and cost of aluminum, but so far, it has worked out quite well for both Ford and their consumers. Aluminum is still strong enough, and body repair costs aren’t that far off from steel panels as long as you go to a Ford-certified auto body shop.

Ford is currently the only one that believes that pickup truck bodies should be made with aluminum. Others remain skeptical and only time will tell if anyone else decides to follow Ford.

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