A flurry of activity in aluminum

The auto industry’s love affair with weight-saving aluminum is just warming up.

In the pipeline is a growing list of vehicles with all-aluminum bodies or with more aluminum body panels, such as doors, roofs and trunks.

Ford, for instance, in 2017 will make more than 1 million vehicles with aluminum bodies, an analyst says. So far the automaker has announced that just the F-150, with projected annual sales of about 650,000, will have an aluminum body.

The rush to aluminum is chock-full of complexities. Aluminum is more expensive than steel. Manufacturing plants need to master how to bond and rivet aluminum parts. Body shop repair technicians need expensive training to work on aluminum.

And the industry has many competing ways to boost fuel economy. The Ram 1500 pickup fitted with a diesel, for instance, gets 28 mpg on the highway, tops for full-sized pickups.

But for now, aluminum is hot. To meet growing demand:

n Alcoa Inc. is expanding a Tennessee plant to boost production of automotive-grade sheet aluminum used to make hoods, doors and other stamped body parts. The company has applied for a Department of Energy loan to pay for the expansion, which is expected to be completed next year.

Alcoa officials say the company has secured long-term contracts for the aluminum that will be produced at the expanded plant.

• Japan’s Kobe Steel is in talks with Toyota Tsusho Corp., a trading company affiliated with Toyota Motor Corp., to form a joint venture to make automotive-grade aluminum sheet metal in the United States.

• In April, Novelis Inc. broke ground for an automotive sheet metal line at its plant in Nachterstedt, Germany.

Outside of Ford, other mass-produced aluminum-intensive vehicles on the road or on the way include:

• Jaguar’s new XE compact sports sedan: Scheduled to begin production next year and reach the United States in 2016, the car will compete against the Audi A4, BMW 3 series, Cadillac ATS, Mercedes-Benz C class and numerous Asian luxury cars.

• Tesla Model X and small sedan: The Model X crossover is the next Tesla aluminum-bodied vehicle to begin production, which kicks off in late summer 2015. The following year, a new small aluminum sedan is scheduled. Tesla’s lone production vehicle, the Model S, sold 6,457 units globally in the first quarter, up from 4,900 a year ago.

• Chevrolet Corvette: The sports car, redesigned for the 2014 model year, uses an aluminum frame that weighs 360 pounds. It is on track to sell more than 36,000 units in 2014, more than double 2013’s volume of about 17,000.

• Range Rover and Range Rover Sport: Jaguar Land Rover will build about 100,000 of the aluminum-bodied SUVs this year, about the same as last year. The company is working on plans to boost capacity in 2015, the company says.

• 2015 Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon mid-sized pickups. Due this fall, the pickups will have aluminum hoods.

General Motors is expected to decide within a year whether it will use aluminum bodies on the next-generation Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups, due around 2018. GM has developed aluminum welding technology that could simplify bonding and riveting.

GM product chief Mark Reuss said he worries about repair costs.

“I read in Automotive News about the tools required to fix an aluminum truck. I saw those costs. We know it’s expensive,” he said at a technology conference in Detroit last week.

Aluminum-free Ram


At Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, CEO Sergio Marchionne said last month that the Ram pickup is not the best use of aluminum in the Chrysler Group lineup.

But he hinted that the next-generation Jeep Wrangler SUV, due to start production in 2017, could be the first Chrysler vehicle to get an aluminum body.

Chrysler has made big strides in boosting the fuel economy of the hot-selling Ram. With a V-6 gasoline engine, the Ram is rated at 25 mpg on the highway, highest for any full-sized pickup with a gasoline engine.

The Ram with an optional EcoDiesel engine is rated at 28 mpg on the highway, the highest ever achieved by a full-sized pickup.

Emmanuel Rosner, an analyst for CLSA Americas, says the increased capacity being installed by Alcoa and Novelis doesn’t necessarily mean that an automaker has committed to another aluminum-bodied vehicle.

The higher volume could be used for stamped body parts instead of entire bodies.

“If they don’t go for full aluminum bodies, they may try to achieve similar outcomes through a combination of high-strength steel and some aluminum panels. For that, you don’t even have to make a major redesign,” Rosner says.

“If you just go for the hood, like the current F-150 has, you don’t need to change the entire production process. It becomes somewhat less effective, but also a less onerous type of bet.”

More Ford vehicles


The F-150 pickup — the industry’s highest-volume vehicle — switches from a steel body to aluminum late this year. Once the two plants that build the truck are running at full speed, Ford will overtake Jaguar Land Rover as the industry’s largest manufacturer of aluminum-bodied vehicles, with expected volume of around 650,000 per year.

Rosner’s sources indicate that by 2017 Ford will be using aluminum bodies on five other pickups and SUVs: the F-250, F-350, Navigator, Expedition and Expedition EL.

That would bring Ford’s aluminum bodies to more than 1 million units per year, he said. He added that the five vehicles will move to the F-150 platform.

Spokesman Mike Levine declined to comment on Rosner’s report.

Alcoa expects automotive demand for aluminum to double by 2025, while Novelis expects to increase sales to automakers 15 percent per year for the rest of the decade.

“When automakers decide to move into aluminum, they do that three or four years in advance of the model year,” Tom Boney, general manager of automotive for Novelis North America, told Automotive News.

“In that time, the aluminum industry is quite capable of capitalizing to meet those requirements. Novelis has spent more than $550 million to increase our capacity. We’ve done that in the United States, Germany and China.”

Kathleen Burke contributed to this report.