The marketing messages for new trucks and SUVs are as much about diets as horsepower and torque.
The practice, known as “lightweighting,” is made possible thanks to a cocktail of advanced materials such as aluminum, high-strength steels and combinations known as composites. Every pound taken out of a pickup truck helps the vehicle increase its maximum payload, towing capacity and fuel economy.
“It’s critically important,” said Raj Nair, president of Ford Motor Co. in North America.
The results are pretty dramatic. The 2019 Ram 1500 pickup debuted by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles at the 2018 North American International Auto Show in Detroit this month is 225 pounds lighter than the model it replaces. The 2019 Chevrolet Silverado introduced by General Motors is 450 pounds lighter than the previous generation. The redesigned 2019 Mercedes-Benz G-Class, a truck-like SUV, shed 375 pounds.
Ford introduced its 2019 Ranger midsize pickup in Detroit. It uses a steel body with high-strength steel in the frame. Components such as the hood and tailgate are made from aluminum.
“You’re going to see more aluminum, more composites, more high-strength steels as there’s an increased emphasis on lightweighting and efficiency,” Nair said.
Ford pioneered the move in big vehicles when it switched to an aluminum bed and body for its F-150 pickup truck in the 2015 model year. The strategy contributed to savings of 700 pounds. Ford also switched from steel to aluminum for the bodies of its Super Duty pickups and Expedition SUV.
Ford’s rivals are not relying on aluminum as much, but they all have launched big lightweighting programs.
The 2019 Chevrolet Silverado introduced an aluminum hood, tailgate and doors. Eighty percent of its frame is made of high-strength steel.
FCA already used an aluminum hood for its Ram 1500. The redesigned 2019 Ram 1500 added aluminum to its tailgate, engine mounts and some suspension components. Ninety-eight percent of its frame is high-strength steel.
There is no wrong way to lightweight, said Dave Sullivan, manager of product analysis for industry consulting firm AutoPacific.
“They are all taking different routes to get to the same goal,” Sullivan said. “There is a lot more differentiation than we have seen in the past.”
Regulations and consumer preferences for bigger cargo and towing capability is expected to push the trend in pickup trucks and SUVs at a faster rate than sedans and small cars.
Heavier vehicles have further to go in order to meet fuel efficiency standards set by the Obama administration in 2009. They set a target of an average of roughly 38 miles per gallon in real world driving for all new light vehicles sold in the U.S. by 2025.
The rules are under review and could be eased by the Trump administration. But as they stand now, nearly 29 percent of vehicles in the light trucks market will need to lose 800 pounds by 2025, according to industry research firm Ducker Worldwide.
“Aluminum remains the fastest growing automotive material,” said Abey Abraham, managing director of automotive materials at Ducker.
By 2020, the average vehicle on the market will have an estimated 466 pounds of aluminum, according to a Ducker analysis. The average new pickup truck will contain 550 pounds of aluminum.
Automakers can afford to invest in advanced materials for light trucks because those vehicles generate higher profit margins than cars, said Jody Hall, vice president of the automotive market for the Steel Market Development Institute.
Although GM is experimenting with exotic materials such as carbon fiber, the heavy lifting of lightweighting will be done by aluminum and steel.
Between 2015 and 2020 the average vehicle is expected to lose 100 pounds thanks to lightweighting, according to the Ducker report. Aluminum will account for 57 percent of that loss. Advanced steels will account for 40 percent.
The mantra across the automotive industry has focused on choosing the right material for the right application at the right time, Abraham said.
“A mixed-material future is clear,” he said.
The Detroit auto show served as a platform for “demonstrating all the great uses of advanced strength steels,” Hall said.
Steel will continue to be attractive to automakers because it is affordable and comes in more than 80 different variations.
The 2019 Ram 1500 display at the show included an exposed high-strength steel frame of the truck. Different sections of the frame were color-coded to identify the material used for each piece. They included conventional steel, high-strength steel, advanced high-strength steel and ultra-high-strength steel – each one stronger and lighter than the last.
Similarly, the 2019 Silverado uses conventional steel for the body panels and high-strength steel in its bed. Seven different grades of steel make up the cabin structure that protects occupants in a crash.
Others are leaning to greater use of aluminum.
The redesigned 2019 Mercedes-Benz G-Class is a symbol of rugged toughness. It has permanent all-wheel drive and three locking differentials for maximum capability. Yet the latest version of the luxury off-road SUV uses aluminum instead of steel in areas prone to scratching or dents. The hood, doors and fenders are now aluminum.
Jeep’s redesigned 2018 Wrangler features aluminum doors and body panels and is 200 pounds lighter compared with the outgoing Wrangler. Lightweighting helps improve the vehicle’s fuel economy rating from the Environmental Protection Agency of 20 mpg overall in the old Wrangler to 23 mpg in the new version.
“It couldn’t have been done without the use of aluminum,” said Scott Tallon, director of the Jeep brand.
Other materials are beginning to find their way into trucks as well.
Jeep engineers couldn’t use aluminum for the Wrangler’s swing gate because it needed to be strong enough to hold a spare tire. Instead they built the gate from magnesium – another lightweight material – and wrapped the gate’s outer in aluminum.
Standing next to the 2019 Ranger on the show floor, Nair said that advanced materials will continue to grow both stronger and more affordable. That will give automakers more choices to help their lightweighting efforts.
“The right material in the right product is absolutely key to deliver the attributes we’re looking for nowadays,” he said.