Three Car Makers; Three Approaches to Fuel Economy

More stringent fuel economy standards for all vehicles, including pickup trucks, are coming. With this in mind, it's interesting to note that Ford, Dodge and Chrysler, three major pickup truck makers in the United States, have taken markedly different approaches to meeting those standards.



Last updated in 1990, the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards require trucks to average 28.8 miles per gallon, up from 23.5, by 2016. Achieving this improvement is not an easy task, though it’s simplified by another change in the rules. Each vehicle will be required to achieve a certain a goal that is determined by its size.



The most significant change will be found at Ford, maker of the F-Series pickups, which are the nation’s bestselling vehicles and a major source of profit for the company. Ford has chosen to completely redesign the F-150 using a body structure that relies on expensive, weight-saving aluminum. Reducing weight is one way to boost fuel economy. The result is a new truck that is the same size as the model it will replace, yet weighs up to 700 pounds less.



The unsettled question is this: Will customers buy a significantly lighter aluminum-bodied pickup truck? Ford is going to great lengths to assure customers that aluminum can be synonymous with “tough,” as it’s generally agreed that pickup buyers aren’t interested in driving a non-tough, or “wimpy,” truck.



Ford has rolled the dice before on advanced technology for pickup trucks and been very successful. That bet came with the introduction of a turbocharged EcoBoost V-6 engine that performs as like a V-8, but delivers better fuel economy.



Yet, the move to EcoBoost engines wasn’t nearly as risky as what’s happening now. If the market had rejected the EcoBoost motor, Ford could still have sold normally aspirated V-6 and V-8 F-150s. With an aluminum body structure in all its trucks, there is no Plan B. My prediction: The move will be a success.



Over at General Motors, the new Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickup trucks have just been introduced, and they are very good. However, they don’t deliver the kind of fuel efficiency improvements that will meet the more stringent standards.



To help overcome this, GM recently unveiled two new mid-size pickup trucks: the Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon. Smaller and lighter than full-size pickup trucks, these models should meet the needs of many truck buyers while delivering better fuel economy.



Since a manufacturer can average the fuel consumption performance of its entire fleet, the smaller more economical pickups should help offset the performance of the larger, less fuel-efficient models. The problem is that Americans typically haven’t been interested in mid-size pickups. The market has declined to the point that Ford no longer produces the Ranger for sale in this country and Chrysler has given up on the Dakota. Even GM has been absent from the mid-size pickup truck market, having ceased production of the first generation Colorado and Canyon in 2012.



Finally, Chrysler has decided to go with a diesel engine in its Ram 1500 pickup. The new 3.0-liter V-6 diesel is very good, and in preliminary drives last summer, I managed to chalk up a 27.4 mile-per-gallon readout on the trip computer, which is excellent for a full-size pickup truck. As of now, Ram is the only 1500-series pickup truck of offer a diesel engine option. Ram executives predict that eventually, the diesel will end up in 30 percent of its half-ton pickups. Time will tell. The diesel engine is an expensive option.



Which approach will be the most effective? The market will decide. For the ultimate in a fuel-efficient pickup, I would suggest a melding of the three approaches: A midsize pickup made with an aluminum body structure for even more weight savings and powered by a diesel engine. Now that could be a real fuel saver.

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