2015 Ford F-150
Cutting weight can be one of the most effective tactics to increase fuel economy, but it doesn't necessarily come cheap.
The 2015 Ford F-150 pickup, with its aluminum body and bed mounted on a conventional steel frame, represents a huge gamble by Ford on its highest-volume vehicle line.
The company says that some models of the full-size pickup are as much as 700 pounds lighter than their steel counterparts, allowing it to fit smaller EcoBoost engines.
But one question about the aluminum F-150--its ability to protect its occupants as well as a conventional steel body during crashes--can probably be laid to rest.
The 2015 F-150 SuperCrew model has received the highest 5-Star score for Overall Safety from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA.
2015 Ford F-150 aluminum body shell
Along with the ratings and Top Safety Pick designations from the private Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), the NHTSA's ratings are heavily scrutinized by buyers.
Achieving anything other than a four- or five-star rating can affect a vehicle's chances of sales success, and so it was unlikely that Ford's newest F-150 would get anything other than a top score.
Automakers these days model the crash performance of their vehicle designs in great detail, allowing them to simulate crashes digitally well before any expensive prototype vehicles are rammed into barriers.
In many cases, the crash-testing of prototypes now largely serves to confirm the modeling results.
NHTSA Tesla Model S crash test (Image: crashnet1 Youtube screen grab)
Until the advent of the very high-volume aluminum F-150, the lightweight metal was largely used for luxury cars from Audi, Jaguar, Range Rover, and other top-end makes.
Electric-car maker Tesla Motors joined that list in 2012 with the release of its Model S five-door luxury sedan, which uses aluminum for its entire body shell.
The Tesla Model S also received the highest possible NHTSA crash-safety scores, with a widely circulated anecdote noting that the vehicle actually broke the agency's roof-crush test equipment.
The company was rebuked by the agency, however, for saying that it had achieved a nonexistent "5.4-Star" safety score, a theoretical calculation from the test results.
2012 Tesla Model S body-in-white
Tesla's upcoming Model X electric SUV will also use an aluminum body, although the metal is thought to pose a challenge for the mounting and stress loads of the vehicle's roof-hinged falcon doors.
But with this Ford F-150 crash-safety test released, attention is now likely to turn to the aluminum pickup truck's repair costs--about which there is relatively little data thus far.