In a turnabout, just five years after it shook the auto industry by dramatically switching the 2015 F-series pickup to an all-aluminum body, Ford adopted a “mixed materials” strategy to save weight on the 2020 Explorer SUV going on sale this summer.
“Weight was a factor in every decision we made,” Explorer chief engineer Bill Gubing told me as he stood in front of a cutaway that exposed the SUV’s structure — including materials that include steel, aluminum, magnesium and plastic. “We looked at every part.”
The new approach reflects the decline in oil prices and an industry trend to use a carefully targeted selection of materials with characteristics and costs tailored to different types of vehicles.
It’s also payoff for the steel industry’s ongoing work to come up with lighter, stronger versions of its product, which has dominated automaking since steel car bodies and frames replaced wood for most vehicles a century ago.
The new Explorer dropped about 200 pounds versus the old model, despite offering many new features. It’s also 36% torsionally stiffer than the old Explorer. That means its body is less likely to twist and flex, a key to ride comfort and stability.
That’s less than a third of the 700-pound plus reduction Ford claimed for the 2015 F-150’s all-aluminum body, but the preceding F-150 was notoriously heavy. It’s also such a popular vehicle that it could withstand the higher cost of a wholesale change as opposed to targeting individual parts and manufacturing processes. Buyers have rewarded Ford, which has sold more F-series trucks at higher prices since the change.
The 2020 Explorer benefits from low oil prices and offering a hybrid model that will boost fuel economy without the cost of switching the whole vehicle’s body to aluminum.
“The Explorer is the most use of mixed materials ever by Ford,” Gubing said. “We considered all-aluminum.”
You could call the ‘20 Explorer’s engineering a more thoughtful approach than substituting one material for another wholesale. The level of detail hidden under the skin — which is all steel, save for an aluminum hood — would amaze most owners.
n The wall between the passenger compartment and engine is dimpled like a golf ball to reduce vibration and noise.
n That dual-wall dashboard has an air gap between walls of steel and plastic to improve sound insulation without adding heavy padding.
n Pieces of steel were strategically cut from a tube in the chassis to reduce weight by removing material where it wasn’t needed.
n A structural rear underbody rail is high-strength boron steel with ribs to reinforce high-stress areas and holes cut out where there’s less load.
n A range of new steel grades and processes for different purposes, including stretch-bending, hydroforming, high-strength, martensitic and ultra high strength.
n A similar variety of types and processes for aluminum, including castings, extrusion and heat treated.
n The radiator is held in place by magnesium and plastic.
n More lightweight magnesium is used for a beam that runs across the vehicle behind the dashboard.
n Plastic in air conditioning ducts was made thinner, with reinforcing ribs.
The 2020 Explorer is the first of several vehicles that will use a new architecture Ford developed. Weight-saving decisions its engineers made will pay off in a range of upcoming models, including the 2020 Lincoln Aviator SUV that goes on sale later this year.
The 2020 Explorer is arriving at dealerships now.
Mark Phelan is the Detroit Free Press auto critic. He can be reached at email@example.com.