You Bet Your Ass a Diesel F-150 is Coming
As Denis Leary has ensured we are aware, the Ford F-Series has been the best selling truck in the U.S. for 39 years. Every 40 seconds the Blue Oval sells an F-Series truck. In fact, if every F-Series sold over the last decade were lined up end-to-end, they would stretch around the globe. The list of impressive sales statistics, superlatives, and accolades is lengthy. But we are not here to sing the company’s praises. We are here to dispassionately investigate how Ford has maintained its leadership in trucks year after year.
The scope of this inquiry is exceedingly broad. For example, we could dive into Ford’s leadership in commercial and upfitter truck sales; design and functionality; materials and platforms; and even distribution and marketing. However, addressing the range of leadership factors is prohibitive. Therefore, this article focuses on one narrow aspect of Ford’s truck leadership, its powertrain preeminence in the most important full-size truck sub-segment, half-tons.
“If Ford wishes to maintain its half-ton leadership, it must expand into diesels. And based on recent audio-evidence, it will. But what engine will it have?”
The first F-Series was produced in 1948 but it was not until its sixth generation that Ford won the sales crown. Over the following four decades, the Big Three offered similar powertrain lineups. They each started with an in-line 6, then progressed to a pair of mid-displacement V8s. Dodge lacked a big block V8 to compete with GM’s 454 and Ford’s 460, so it outflanked its cross-town rivals by introducing its brand defining turbo-diesel Cummins in 1989. Ford and GM responded with capable turbocharged diesels of their own, and the heavy duty race was on.
There was also evolution at the bottom of the power spectrum. GM replaced its inline six cylinder with a more modern V6 in 1985. Ford made the move a decade later. The big news and real investments were in the high-volume engines, the mid-displacement V8s. In 1997 Ford’s long-serving 5.0L and 6.8L V8s gave way to their 4.6L and 5.4L modular V8 successors. Ford’s large 7.5L V8 was replaced by the 6.8L V10. GM swapped out its venerable 5.0L and 5.7L during the 1999 platform update for the 4.8L and 5.3L. On the heavy end, where half-ton trucks rarely tread, GM wound down 454 production and moved forward with 6.0L, 6.6L, and 8.1L big block V8s. For more than 20 years, the engine offerings were stable – visit any Dodge, Chevy, GMC, or Ford dealer between 1980 and 2010 and you could make a reasonable apples-to-apples comparison across their powertrain offerings.
None of the Detroit Three distinguished themselves through distinctive powertrains until five years ago when Ford changed the competitive landscape. Gone were three decades of predictability. In 2011 Ford introduced a new 3.7L V6, the Coyote 5.0L V8, and its revolutionary 3.5L Ecoboost V6. The EcoBoost, Ford’s branding for its family of gas powered turbocharged direct injection engines, was not simply a transplant of the 3.5L EcoBoost already employed in the Explorer/Taurus/Flex. The F-150 engine was retuned; the Garret turbos swapped out for more robust BorgWarner units, and other enhancements made to address the extreme duty cycles demanded of trucks. Torque, the stock-in-trade for trucks, was neatly spaced between the three offerings at 278, 380, and 420 pound-feet, respectively. Special edition F-150s, such as the Raptor and Harley-Davidson, as well as the Super Duty received the new 6.2L big block gas V8.
“In the ten years preceding 2011, Ford averaged a 36.4 percent market share in full-size trucks and even surpassed GM’s combined Chevrolet/GMC share twice. So why did Ford make such a radical change to its engine lineup?”
The 3.7L V6, now 3.5L V6, continues to serve the same purpose as the V and I sixes before. It provides a base engine that both meets the needs of some commercial users at a low price point, and gives consumers a reason to spend more for something with additional capability, while netting Ford a larger profit margin. The 5.0L Coyote is an evolution of the well known modular V8 family. It split the displacement difference of the old engines while delivering performance on par with the outgoing range-topping 5.4L. The Coyote was expected by many to win the plurality of consumer votes and be the highest-volume engine in the F-150 lineup. But the Coyote was not the F-150’s peak power plant. In a move certain to upset traditionalists, the range-topper became the 365 horsepower EcoBoost. Not only did the 3.5L offer significantly less displacement than the 5.4L and 6.8L before it, but it included a pair of turbos. Hard-core truck enthusiasts cried foul. But Ford had done its homework. Not only had turbos been proven in harsh commercial and military applications for decades, but the new engine would lighten the truck, improve fuel economy, and offer significant performance improvements over the outgoing 5.4L V8.
In the ten years preceding 2011, Ford averaged a 36.4 percent market share in full-size trucks and even surpassed GM’s combined Chevrolet/GMC share twice. So why did Ford make such a radical change to its engine lineup? Increasingly stringent CAFE requirements absolutely played into Ford’s decision, but its drivetrain strategy was not entirely consistent with trends in the truck market. It was risky. It would undoubtedly upset some traditionalists. But it may also attract an off-setting quantity of early adopters. Regardless of difficult-to-quantify threats to its market share, Ford understood that truck buyers are more loyal than auto consumers at-large. This enabled the company to operate from a position of strength. The most effective leaders lead from the front.
In 2015 Ford downsized the base engine from 3.7L to 3.5L to make room for its higher volume 2.7L EcoBoost V6. The small EcoBoost was designed to chase the segment fuel-economy crown while providing impressive performance. The new turbo-gasser delivers 20 more pound-feet of torque 1,000 rpm earlier on the tach than the new naturally aspirated 3.5L V6. When Ford announced its new powertrains in mid-2014, it projected an even 28 percent share for each of the EcoBoosts and the Coyote, leaving 16 percent for the base 3.5L.
What actually happened? A November 2015 Ford press release shows 64 percent of F-150s sold through the first nine months of the year were delivered with an EcoBoost. And according to Ford Truck Communications Manager, Mike Levine, 30 percent of F-150s sold in 2015 came with a 2.7L. In sum, its EcoBoost engines have delivered 14 percent more sales than Ford projected. Not only have they earned market acceptance, signaling the success of Ford’s powertrain strategy, but they have exceeded sales expectations. The F-Series has retained is sales crown and has even outpaced GM’s combined truck brand sales in three of the last four years.
Ford has maintained its truck leadership through a continuous commitment to product, with a focus on customers. Many of the company’s best and brightest are attracted to its successful truck programs, giving them the talent, vision, and persistence necessary to maintain leadership. This does not mean the competition is out of touch with the market or delivering poor products. On the contrary, this is a case of several veteran heavy-weights facing off. Like Manning versus Brady, there is room for only one to hoist the trophy each year, but the league is large enough to accommodate multiple high quality competitors. Ford’s key to maintaining a shot at the podium each year is its commitment to the market and its willingness to take calculated risks.
Even with its immense commitment to trucks and the allocation of significant resources, Ford has not owned every corner of the powertrain high-road. Perhaps the most notable exception is in half-ton diesels. In 2014 Ram introduced its 3.0L EcoDiesel. And this year, Nissan’s new Titan XD with a 5.0L Cummins diesel is claiming the white space between Ram’s half-ton diesel and the Detroit Three’s heavy duty 6.6L and 6.7L diesels. Toyota is close behind with the same Cummins 5.0L used in the Nissan. Ram’s diesel offering has garnered critical acclaim, if somewhat uneven demand. Nonetheless, Ram sold approximately 50,000 oil-burners in 2015, good for four times Titan’s total sales and sufficient to establish real demand for half-ton diesels. The Titan XD has yet to reach a wide audience, but if critics are right, it will conquest a material number of sales from the competition. And yet, Ford is absent from the small to mid-displacement diesel space.
Ford has engaged in a robust set of diesel development programs that have fueled compression-ignition rumors for over a decade. The rumors begin and end with the Lion engine program. The all-diesel program dating to 1999 was co-developed with PSA (Peugeot Citroen) and designed for PSA, Jaguar, and Land Rover products. This program developed a 2.7L V6, which later morphed into a 3.0L V6. Land Rover made extensive modifications to adapt the power plants for off-road and towing applications. And both engines found their way under hundreds of thousands of hoods. About the same time, Navistar, Ford’s diesel engine partner prior to the launch of its current 6.7L, developed a 4.5L V6. Ford’s travails with Navistar are well known and the engine was not adopted for a number of reasons. Ford also took what it learned from the Lion program and developed a 4.4L V8. Today, this engine delivers 339 horsepower and 516 pound-feet of torque in high-spec diesel equipped ROW (Rest of World) Range Rovers. But in spite of Ford’s successful development of a broad range of modern truck-capable diesels, it took Ram to establish the market for half-ton diesel trucks. And it is not a niche.
If Ford wishes to maintain its half-ton leadership, it must expand into diesels. And based on recent audio-evidence provided by SpiedBilde, via Autoblog, it will. But what is it? The current 3.2L Powerstroke from the Transit lacks competitive performance for the half-ton truck segment. Furthermore, a larger displacement diesel approximating the size of the Nissan and Toyota 5.0L entries is unlikely. The 4.4L Ford’s output is impressive but edges too close to the performance and fuel economy of Ford’s 6.7L. That leaves the capable 3.0L V6 Lion diesel, branded Td6 in the North American Land Rover and Land Rover Sport. This engine is mature, already meets EPA emissions regulations, and is ready today. Offering 443 pound-feet of torque, the 3.0L diesel would not only be a good fit for F-150, but also for the upcoming Ranger/Bronco twins.
That brings us to the electrified F-150. Ford CEO Mark Fields indicated in December that Ford will electrify its half-ton truck by 2020. The company has not yet selected a specific solution or vendor. But don’t look for anything exotic. They will almost certainly select a PEV (Plug-In Electric) solution, as PEVs bring significant performance and fuel economy advantages over incumbent full-hybrid solutions. Moreover, Mr. Fields specifically identified the F-150 EV as a rear-wheel-drive only product. Ford’s joint hybrid development project with Toyota was dissolved a couple years ago, but the company won’t be going it alone. Ford needs external expertise. One likely vendor is Germany’s ZF, which has already has off-the-shelf PEV solutions that increase the range and top speed of hybrids without relying on new battery technology. ZF’s relationship with Ford is long. It began supplying Dearborn with light and medium duty truck transmissions 30 years ago and is a leading supplier of hybridized running gear for both passenger car and commercial applications worldwide. Look for an electrified F-150 to launch along with the next major platform update.
Ford has enjoyed sales leadership in the truck market for almost four decades. And it has solidified its leadership position, in part through drivetrain innovation over the last five years. Its continuous investment and calculated risks have earned it both accolades in the press and customers in the showroom. Downsizing its gasoline engines and adding turbocharging along with direct injection is the most recent example. The rapid introduction of diesels and commitment to electrification will at the very least deliver Ford a competitive engine lineup across the F-150 range. And at most, Ford may again surpass the competition with a market topping diesel and EV to go along with its four gasoline engines. Regardless, look for Ford to continue taking risks and leading from the front.
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Via [Autoblog, SpiedBilde]