It was the best-kept, worst-kept secret of this year's Detroit auto show: Ford used its press conference at the Joe Louis Arena to show a concept version of the next-generation F-150 pickup truck. Called the Atlas concept, the flashy truck provides several important clues as to the future of the Blue Oval's best-selling model.
Dispelling rumors, Ford group vice president for development Raj Nair confirms that the Atlas concept isn't made of aluminum or magnesium -- only the hood, like on current F-150s, is aluminum, and the concept weighs about as much as a normal F-Series. But Nair says "the next-generation F-150 will have a significant weight drop" that could reach as much as 700 pounds. That sort of diet will almost certainly require switching from steel to lighter metals.
Under the hood is the next generation of Ford's EcoBoost turbocharged engine, which gains a stop-start feature. While there's no word on size or displacement, Nair hints that Ford could further downsize its powertrains because lighter trucks no longer need a giant V-8s. Ford probably won't go to a four-cylinder in the F-150, but the current 3.5-liter EcoBoost V-6 might shrink to, say, 3.0 liters.
"The days of the international combustion engine still have a lot of life left in them," Nair says. "We believe that fuel economy will be increasingly important, and we know the targets will be increasingly higher."
A diesel, meanwhile, is currently off the table. Ford doesn't see a strong market in the light-duty truck segment, especially as there are minimal fuel-cost savings due to the higher price of diesel fuel and emissions components.
As to styling, Ford president of Americas Joe Hinrichs boasts that the Atlas concept "pushes the limits of what an F-Series pickup can be." LED head- and taillights, an enormous chrome front grille, a plethora of squared-off creases and body panels, and a somewhat wider stance make the Atlas look even more butch and aggressive than the current truck. It's much more modern and design-centric than today's F-150. The interior, too, is more modern thanks to plentiful use of aluminum, blue LED illumination, and chunky angular shapes for the controls and dashboard. Big metal toggle switches and a sparkly metal-and-glass instrument cluster are, sadly, probably only for the concept.
Aerodynamics will play just as much a role in reducing consumption as weight loss, and Ford has implemented several "active" components to clean up the Atlas's drag coefficient. An electric chin spoiler rises to clear obstacles but lowers at speed to reduce frontal drag; special shutters between the alloy wheel spokes slide shut to further smooth airflow at highway speeds; and automatic grille shutters, already offered on most new Fords, keep the grille from producing drag when the engine doesn't need extra cooling. All told, these aero tricks are said to add 2 mpg on the highway.
The industry leader in truck sales doesn't want to alienate its most loyal customers, so there's plenty more functionality in the Atlas concept. A 360-degree camera system allows for easier maneuvering, and LED bed and mirror lights drain the battery less than the incandescent bulbs on current trucks. The cab's roof has an integrated rack for carrying ladders or lumber, which can be supported by a pop-up brace that emerges from the tailgate. (When the tailgate is open, that bracket serves as the bed step that allows easier ingress.) Slide-out loading ramps are integrated into the Atlas concept's bed, and Ford says there will even be a feature that helps steer automatically to attach a trailer.
It's no secret that the next-generation Ford F-150 will debut in the next year or two looking very similar to this Atlas concept. The automaker believes its next F-150 will not only continue the nameplate's 36-year record as America's most popular truck, but also will move the segment forward in terms of technology, design, and efficiency. But most important, the F-150 should be a more compelling and up-to-date choice than the mildly warmed-over 2014 Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra that debuted in December. "This is only a glimpse of the future," promises Ford's Hinrichs. "We remain absolutely committed to raising the bar in the pickup segment."