Ford’s Atlas concept shows how future half-ton pickups can be both economical and purposeful.
With federal fuel economy regulations slated to jump dramatically in the coming years – reaching an average of 54.5 mpg by 2025 – automakers are struggling to reinvent their future models to meet the challenge without alienating buyers in the process. Nowhere is this more critical, especially where domestic brands are concerned, than with what are arguably the most purposeful, not to mention profitable, rides on the road – full-size pickup trucks.
The challenge is how to raise the average fuel economy of a light-duty pickup while maintaining its durability, stalwart hauling and towing abilities, as well as its rough-and-tumble persona. Ford tipped its hand at this year’s North American International Auto Show in Detroit with its Atlas concept, which insiders say is actually a thinly veiled preview of the next-generation F150 full-size pickup that’s anticipated to reach dealers’ showrooms for the 2015 model year.
“The Ford Atlas concept previews the innovations that will transform what people expect from their pickups,” says Raj Nair, Ford group vice-president for global product development.
For starters, the Atlas concept simply looks like it’s ready to pull a tree stump out of the ground with its oversized grille, wide stance and muscular wheel arches. As seen in a four-door SuperCrew configuration, it’s 238 inches long, 88 inches wide and 81 inches high, and rides on a 150-inch wheelbase, which makes it slightly larger overall than the current F150. Clearly, extreme downsizing is not in Ford’s immediate future and neither is a move to a car-like unibody construction, which would compromise its cargo and towing capacities. To that end, the Atlas rides on a 55,000-psi high-strength steel ladder frame. Yet, Ford is expected to put a redesigned version of its big pickup on a thorough weight reduction program to help boost its fuel economy, largely through extensive use of aluminum and other lighter-yet-durable materials throughout the vehicle.
Power will come from a next-generation turbocharged and direct-injected EcoBoost engine, likely a V6, that’s enhanced with an array of gas-saving technology. (The current F150’s EcoBoost V6 generates 365 horsepower and has an 11,300-pound towing capacity.) This would include an auto start-stop function to depower the engine while at idle, and “active shutters” behind the grille and incorporated into the wheels that would close at highway speeds to improve the vehicle’s aerodynamics. Similarly, a drop-down front air dam would deploy at higher speeds, with power running boards that tuck away once the truck is moving, both to help minimize wind resistance.
Inside, a contemporary look is enhanced with added rear-seat legroom, thanks to innovatively designed seating that is both thin, comfortable and practical, with integrated storage bins. Dashboard buttons and switches are large enough to be operated while wearing work gloves. A 360-degree camera gives a top-down view of the vehicle’s exterior for easier and safer parking, while a dynamic hitch assist function uses a rear-mounted camera to help precisely align the truck’s hitch with a trailer coupling.
Multiple tie-down points and 110-volt electrical outlets are integrated into the cargo box, which is illuminated with energy-efficient LED lighting. A pair of hidden ramps stow beneath the bed to make loading and unloading wheeled equipment and bikes easier.
Industry insiders received the Atlas concept warmly, though cautiously. “It’ll be interesting to see if Ford can convince the full-size truck market buyer that you can take heavy amounts of weight off the truck and still have all the capabilities expected of a full-size truck,” says Larry Dominique, executive vice president for TrueCar.com, Santa Monica, Calif. “This vehicle is important to Ford, not only because it’s their highest volume vehicle, but because it is also the most profitable and has the strongest owner loyalty in its lineup.”
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