It is a crown Ford has no intention of losing.
The F-150 full-size truck has been the bestselling vehicle in the U.S. for more than three decades. In 2012, the automaker sold more than 645,000 copies, outpacing General Motors’ trucks by 70,000.
Yet rival automakers are sharpening their claws to get a bigger piece of this lucrative pie. All-new versions of the Chevy Silvarado; its luxury cousin, the GMC Sierra; and the Toyota Tundra will go on sale this year. Ram put a heavily revised version of its 1500 truck on sale in late 2012.
With this in mind, Ford is already looking forward to the next generation of its F-150, a model that probably will debut in 2015. To tease the direction it's headed, the automaker unveiled the Atlas concept truck at the 2013 Detroit Auto Show. On Monday, Ford brought the Atlas to The Times office for a closer look.
This concept truck is exactly that: a concept. Although the exterior looks like a production-ready hunk of metal, almost nothing on the Atlas’ body is actually metal. The body panels are custom-made fiberglass, and everything has been built and machined by hand.
Putting together such a project is slow and expensive. Built over six months by a team of 30 people, this prototype probably cost more than $1 million.
The Atlas rides on the frame of an existing F-150, which has been lengthened slightly. The engine is also straight out of a current truck, a twin-turbo EcoBoost V-6 that in stock form makes 365 horsepower and 420 pound-feet of torque.
Ford is using the Atlas concept to gauge customers’ reactions to a host of potential new features. Active shutters in the wheel rims close at speed for less aerodynamic drag. A "cargo cradle" rises from the tailgate when it’s closed, enabling owners to carry long objects like a ladder or kayak by resting one end on the roof and one end on the cradle.
Cargo ramps are stored beneath the bed and can be installed quickly to load items like motorcycles or lawn tractors. An engine start/stop function recognizes when you’re towing something and disables itself.
Inside the Atlas is a different story. Although it may look pretty in photos, it’s much more of a design exercise than full of practical features. The seats are lined in butter-soft leather but have no cushioning. The switches are locked in place, and the screens for the instrument panel and dashboard are controlled by a laptop hidden from sight.
Still, the rugged ethos of the cabin will probably make it to production, as could the reliance on the numerous toggle switches.
If you’re interested in getting a closer look for yourself, you’ll have only a few more chances this year. After debuting in Detroit in January and making a brief tour in L.A., the Atlas concept will be seen at the AirVenture airshow in Oshkosh, Wis., this summer and at the Texas State Fair in Dallas in September and October.