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Ford's V6 gamble turbocharges sales of F-150

Mon, 15 Aug 2011

Five years ago, when Ford considered a push to put a pricey, premium V6 in more F-150s, it seemed like a dangerous gamble with a macho, full-sized pickup known for toughness and capacity. To many dealers and company insiders, it seemed like a bad joke.

"I once said, "Bubba don't buy nothing but a V8, and we've got a lot of Bubbas out here,'" recalls Martin Gubbels, owner of Big Sky Ford-Lincoln in Torrington, Wyo.

But Ford has had shocking initial success selling its high-performance turbocharged EcoBoost V6 in the F-150, and Gubbels has become a believer: "A redneck will buy an EcoBoost when they're told by a knowledgeable salesperson that this thing has more horsepower, torque and better fuel economy than a V8. They'll buy it."

For the past four months, combined sales of the 3.5-liter direct-injected turbocharged EcoBoost V6 and the F-150's base engine, the naturally aspirated 3.7-liter V6, consistently have topped sales of the two V8 engines offered in the F-150. The V6s consistently account for at least 55 percent of the sales mix, and the EcoBoost has the lion's share of the V6 sales.

And it wasn't just the addition of a second V6 that went against conventional wisdom. Ford decided to price the EcoBoost above the top-selling V8--a move even bolder than it seems now because it was made before the spike in gasoline prices.

So far that risky road looks like a good choice. But for Ford engineers and marketers, it was a road filled with obstacles.

"We knew 'there's no replacement for displacement,'" says Doug Scott, manager of Ford's truck marketing group. "That's a very popular saying among full-sized pickup customers--which just shows their love for the V8 engine. We knew we had a marketing challenge."

But they succeeded. The EcoBoost is available on all models of the F-150 except the Harley-Davidson model. The EcoBoost V6 is not offered on the F-250 or other F-series models.

The EcoBoost is rated at 16 mpg city/22 highway--only a slight edge over the most popular V8's 15/21. But the EcoBoost V6 makes 365 hp and 420 pounds-feet of torque, compared with the V8's 360 hp and 380 pounds-feet of torque. Its edge in towing capacity is significant.

In May, June and July, the F-150 engine mix ran 41 percent EcoBoost and 15 percent 3.7-liter V6 base engine, Ford says.

The EcoBoost V6 was introduced in the F-150 in January. The base V6, also new for the 2011 model year, went on sale in December.

In 2006, support for an EcoBoost V6 for the F-150 was low inside the company, even though Ford and its rivals had long offered V6s to low-end pickup buyers. Currently the Chevrolet Silverado, GMC Sierra, Ram and Toyota Tundra are offered with V6s.

Historically, Ford offered V6s mostly to satisfy fleet buyers who needed the most inexpensive truck available with decent fuel economy. Very few V6 F-150s were sold to retail buyers, and those that were tended to be the $199-a-month lease deal specials. Most years the V6 accounted for well under 10 percent of sales.

But the EcoBoost name was taking off in other Ford vehicles. EcoBoost is Ford's marketing term for direct-injection turbocharged engines that deliver high performance and better fuel economy.

Proving the case

After Ford leaders approved the plan in 2006 to begin developing an EcoBoost for possible use in the F-150, engineers still had to prove that a V6 could top a V8 in performance, durability and fuel economy. That was the only way to get the green light to put the EcoBoost in the pickup.

Eric Kuehn, Ford's chief engineer of the F-150 at the time, now is Ford's chief engineer for global hybrid and battery electric vehicles. He and his team started hand-building a prototype EcoBoost V6 engine.

Kuehn recalls making some of the parts by hand. Engineers had to code the software to make sure the experimental engine would drive the test truck.

On a summer morning in 2007, after months of refinement, Kuehn took a red 2008 F-150 to a test track at the product development center in Dearborn, Mich. Inside was the handmade prototype EcoBoost V6.

Kuehn invited product development chief Derrick Kuzak, marketing boss Jim Farley, powertrain engineering head Barb Samardzich, Scott and a handful of dealers.

Kuehn asked them to drive the EcoBoost truck on a variety of terrains.

"It was done to get everyone aligned that this engine could do it," Kuehn says. "You're at that in-between stage where you've started the program development, but you need program approval. It doesn't totally seal the deal, but it helps."

In this case, it sealed the deal.

"It was magic," Samardzich says of the test drive that day. "It was one of the things we did and we normally don't do, because we look at objective data to make our product decisions. But this engine was so against convention that someone said, "Let's put it in a truck and show what it can do.'"

It was a key moment in changing attitudes within Ford, Samardzich says: "Once we realized the content of the engine, the torque and the dedication to sustainability, we thought, "OK, we'll sell some of these.' But the response in the marketplace even surprised us."

Making a business case

Doubts about putting an EcoBoost V6 in the F-150 bled beyond Ford's walls and dealerships to the automotive press, which learned of the plan in late 2007.

"As part of the media launch of the new F series, I talked about our sustainability strategy and a part of that was EcoBoost and how it was going to be one of the most fundamental pieces of our fuel economy strategy," Kuzak recalls.

"The feedback was disbelief that we felt that North American customers would ever accept smaller-displacement engines and engines with fewer cylinders. That they just weren't ready."

But Kuzak says Ford leaders built the business case for the EcoBoost V6 based on CEO Alan Mulally's key tenet to be a fuel-economy leader in every vehicle segment.

Kuzak says the consumer cost of ownership favored EcoBoost over options such as hybrid or diesel engines. A gasoline-electric hybrid costs about $5,000 more than a conventional gasoline-powered vehicle, and a diesel is about $1,000 to $4,000 more, says Mike Omotoso, senior manager of global powertrain at J.D. Power and Associates in suburban Detroit.

By contrast, an EcoBoost costs about $750 more than the smaller of the two V8s offered on the F-150. Kuzak says the payback on EcoBoost, with gasoline at $4 per gallon, is a year to 18 months.

Says Kuzak: "And diesels and hybrids, even at fuel costs of $4 a gallon, which was what I used in considering it, it would be five to 10 years in terms of the payback time. So this was the right decision from a customer perspective."

When Kuzak and Ford leaders were making the EcoBoost F-150 decision, gasoline prices were relatively low and stable, at about $2.20 per gallon. Kuzak says Ford saw the EcoBoost as a way to insulate the F-150 from rising fuel prices.

"It allowed us to continue to provide that most important product and maintain that leadership, independent of fuel prices rising," Kuzak says. "So it was clearly risk mitigation on our part."

Though it is rated at only 1 mpg better in city and highway fuel economy than the most-popular V8, that's significant for fleet buyers, analysts say. "If you have 100 trucks doing 20,000 miles per year, then 1 mpg savings adds up," says J.D. Power's Omotoso.

The marketing effort

Developing an engine is one thing. It's another to make believers of the people who sell it and the people who--automakers hope--will buy it. Ford launched a major marketing effort aimed at dealers, truck owners and online shoppers.

First, Ford had to prove the EcoBoost V6 would be durable enough for the hard-use life of a work truck.

In late 2008 and early 2009, some dealers and dealership sales managers from high-volume pickup markets tested a prototype. It won over many skeptical Texas dealers.

"It just blows you away," says Mitchell Dale, owner of McRee Ford in Dickinson, Texas. "It was unbelievable."

But Ford leaders knew they had to win traditional pickup customers, too.

"They want to know that the engine will not only perform, but it'll be durable," Ford engineer Kuehn says. "We needed to put all our cards on the table and show how much confidence we have in the EcoBoost."

In February 2010, Kuehn and his team of engineers, plus public relations staff, marketers and manufacturing leaders, held a series of meetings, often running into late nights, trying to figure out how to prove the EcoBoost engine was durable, capable and fuel-efficient. The EcoBoost, an overhead-cam engine, revs higher than the V8, and people would want to know how it stood up to hard use.

The result was the EcoBoost Torture Test, from August through December 2010.

As one part of the test, Ford put 100,000 miles on an EcoBoost engine on a dynamometer. The test simulated high speeds, multiple gear shifts and climbing high grades.

Then Ford tested the engine in a 2011 pickup and provided coverage on its Web site. For example, Ford had it haul timber for a day, then pull a 9,000-pound trailer. Ford even put it in the Baja 1000 off-road truck race.

"We were laying our cards on the table that it would deliver and be best in class in towing, payload and fuel efficiency, but it would also deliver durability," Kuehn says.

Next, Ford's marketing team decided consumers needed to experience the engine firsthand. "We still knew we had a significant marketing challenge," Scott says.

Ford took EcoBoost trucks to potential customers in what it called the EcoBoost Drive Tour. Starting last November, Ford delivered trucks to the homes or businesses of customers who had signed up online to test drive one. Ford ended up doing 12,000 test drives in more than 70 U.S. markets, Scott says.

At about the same time, to get salespeople onboard, Ford held Built Ford Tough Round-Up training in eight U.S. cities. About 10,000 dealership salespeople drove the F-150's lineup of new powertrains, along with competitors' products.

New Car Director Billy Guerra of Boggus Ford-Lincoln in McAllen, Texas, remembers that the experience surprised him, convincing him that the EcoBoost would do what Ford said it would do.

"The No. 1 concern was that it has enough power," Guerra says. "No. 2 is durability."

With the development done and the marketing groundwork laid, it was time to see how the market would respond. Ford introduced the new 3.7-liter V6 base engine in December and the EcoBoost in mid-January, but good supplies of V6 F-150's started flowing in February and early March.

Ford had expected the 3.7-liter to account for about 10 percent of the mix, but it has consistently been higher--more like 15 percent--since April.

Ford was targeting a 40 percent take rate for the EcoBoost, and Scott says, "We knew 40 percent was going to be a challenge." For May, June and July, the figure was 41 percent.

Two things have helped Ford's V6 push this year, analysts say. One is the spike this spring in gasoline prices to $4 a gallon. The other is Ford's success in building consumer recognition of the EcoBoost name, says J.D. Power's Omotoso.

So far, so good. But Ford knows the sales job isn't over.

"We'll continue to have this ongoing challenge to prove ourselves," Scott says. "We have some years ahead of us to convince the truck driver that it is durable."

GM, Chrysler pickups likely to get new V6s

Ford's choice of direct-inject turbocharging for its EcoBoost V6 is one strategy. General Motors has chosen other technologies to improve fuel economy and performance.

GM spokesman Tom Wilkinson says GM is focused on "continuous improvement" of the mainstream 5.3-liter V8 in the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra full-sized pickups. The Silverado's 5.3-liter V8 makes 315 hp and 335 pounds-feet of torque.

That engine competes most directly with Ford's EcoBoost in price and performance, he says.

GM's four-wheel-drive trucks match the combined EPA fuel economy rating of the EcoBoost 4wd F-150s. Rear-drive models are 1 mpg lower.

GM's recent changes to the engine include variable valve timing and displacement on demand. GM is expected to introduce a turbocharged V6 on its next generation of full-sized pickups, expected in 2013. It is considering other fuel-saving techniques for the redesigned trucks, too, such as eight-speed transmissions and significant weight reduction.

Chrysler Group sells mostly V8s in its Ram 1500 half-ton pickup. But the Ram 1500 eventually will get Chrysler's new Pentastar V6 engine, which likely will be teamed with a new eight-speed automatic transmission, probably in 2013.

Ford knows the competition will react. It has the advantage of being first to put direct-injection turbocharged V6 technology in a pickup. But Mike Omotoso, senior manager of global powertrain at J.D. Power and Associates in suburban Detroit, notes that, because of rising federal fuel-economy requirements, "The heat is on Ford, and the heat is on for everyone."

Mike Colias and Bradford Wernle contributed

How they compareHere are the numbers for a 2011 Ford XLT regular-cab F-150 with EcoBoost V-6 and the most popular V-8. EcoBoost V-65.0-liter V-8Maximum payload3,060 lbs.3,060 lbs.Maximum towing11,300 lbs.10,000 lbs.Fuel economy16 city/22 hwy.15 city/21 hwy.Horsepower365 @ 5,000 rpm360 @ 5,500 rpmTorque420 lbs.-feet @ 2,500 rpm380 lbs.-feet @ 4,250 rpmDisplacement/type3.5-liter V-6 twin turbo5.0-liter 32-valve V-8

By Jamie LaReau- Automotive News