Aluminum vs Steel in Vehicles: It’s more complicated than you imagine

Vehicle manufacturers are always looking for a way to cut costs, increase fuel economies and essentially woo buyers with interesting gimmicks, whether real or imagined. These gimmicks are often just marketing spin, while at other times the gimmick turns into a real world advantage and increased sales. The recent foray into aluminum bodies for vehicles is drawing sharp rhetoric and opinions from every aisle, but which ones should you believe?

Ford F150 Lite Aluminum-Alloy Body

Ford F150 Lite – Aluminum-Alloy Body and Steel Frame

Ford F150 Lite

Ford F150

Ford F150

The company that truly started it all was Ford with the production of an all-aluminum body over a traditional steel chassis. This combination, Ford hopes will propel the F150 even further above its competition by providing the same design at the same price but much better fuel economy. The light weight nature of aluminum provides a significant bump in fuel economy but at the expense of possible repair costs to the much more fragile aluminum body panels.

There are also perceptions that surround the strength of steel versus aluminum that needed to be addressed. Essentially, Ford’s answer to these questions is that you can increase the thickness of aluminum or heat treat it to a point where it is just as strong as steel or more, but still is lighter by as much as 40%. This light weight but just as strong option offers the better fuel economy of up to 29% but as little as 5% more miles per gallon (mpg).

IIHS Crash Safety

Although one model of the F150 received the “Top Safety Pick” for a 5 Star crash rating for the crew cab model, unfortunately the extended cab actually fared worst with its aluminum body causing significant intrusion into the survivable space of the occupant in the small overlap test. Crash testing and top safety picks often make a large splash in the news and may have some residual effect on consumer choices. The fact that the IIHS tested two versions of the F150 is out of the ordinary. Generally the IIHS only tests one model per manufacturer, but because of the sales volume of both models the institute figured it was necessary.

It seems from the results that technically an aluminum body can be “just as safe” as a steel body vehicle, but ultimately it still depends on design. With these results the official word from Ford is that they will take the results into consideration to make design changes to the extended cab version. Until that happens however, you may want to stick with the crew cab to avoid serious injury during a front crash.

Oversized Repair Costs

All repair tests up to this point, except the claims made by Ford themselves, seem to point to a higher cost to repair aluminum body vehicles. However, these tests are small sample sizes conducted during the first trial phases. Unfortunately it is impossible to know if they are representative of the repair industry over the long term. Repair shops themselves have different capabilities and rates and either have invested in the proper tools and machinery for aluminum or have not. It is reasonable to expect that until these technicians get to an “expert” level of capability for repairs on these vehicles for costs to be increased over what the long term repair costs will be. Furthermore, many of these shops may be charging a premium at this point to recover the costs of the new tools, machinery and training time required to repair these vehicles.

However, over the long term, these costs could settle into a rate that may be similar to steel. If the repair process is as easy as Ford claims, the higher costs of materials will be averaged out with the shorter labor time required to make the repairs. Unfortunately, these costs just will not be truly known until there are 100,000 of samples, not a few dozen.

MPG vs Repair

Lastly, in the discussion of aluminum versus steel is the actual need of manufacturers to start planning to meet the 50 mpg target dictated by legislation in the US by 2025. Ford may be the first to market, but do not be fooled by current ad campaigns, there are multiple manufacturers looking at alternative materials including aluminum to help get them to the 50 mpg marker.

For consumers, it may be a more emotional or risk assessment decision. The first part of the choice based on emotion is clearly outlined by a certain portion of consumers that prefer a “green” option. All things being equal, if the mpg is better, consumers are more apt to make that choice as well because of the ‘out-of-pocket’ costs of fuel on a daily basis over the one-time costs of potential repair.

With most consumers not looking at the potential of an accident, but rather at the costs daily to run the vehicle the mpg argument will probably win out in most households over the ethereal potential of a crash repair.

Competitors

Even though the Ford F150 is the best-selling truck in America and is being billed as the most fuel efficient under the aluminum body, in fact a conventional diesel truck by Dodge Ram is currently still beating the F150 aluminum body in the mpg war. The F150 rear-wheel drive Eco-boost, 2.7 liter V6 aluminum body gets a combined 22 mpg whereas the Ram’s 1500 EcoDiesel rated at a 23 mpg combined rating is still king of fuel economy for full size pickup trucks. With diesels usually overachieving their ratings and turbocharged engines like the Ford usually underperforming their mpg rating, the Ram still looks to win this contest. Imagine how the Ram will compare when it switches to an aluminum body.

You may think that Ram’s current attack ads on Ford’s aluminum body as sub-par odd, yet consumer memories are quite short. Most manufacturers are looking into aluminum as an option, with GM recently announcing their switch over to using more aluminum in their vehicles with a full overhaul of factories in Michigan to compete with Ford. GM plans to make use of the material in pickups and SUVs.

Dodge Ram 1500

Dodge Ram 1500

Considering even Ferrari is looking to aluminum to drop its weight-power ratio, the future of vehicles certainly seems to be in the direction of lighter options. Just make sure you research your potential purchase and realize its limitations or challenges before purchase.

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