Gaudy repair, insurance prices expected for aluminum-laden vehicles
Ford Motor Co.'s aluminum-intensive F-150 likely will lure loyal truck buyers to showrooms when it debuts late this year, but experts warn consumers should prepare for sticker shock — after the purchase.
Parts and repair costs could double for the aluminum truck, say experts and body shops that fix aluminum cars on the market. And companies that analyze data for the collision industry say insurance rates will increase, probably 5 to 10 percent above the average premium of $590 a year that Erie Insurance Group tracks for the Pittsburgh area.
Ford will start production of the F-150 at its Dearborn, Mich., truck plant in the fourth quarter. The automaker hasn't given details on price, fuel mileage, repair and insurance costs — details that insurers and companies that trade on vehicle information are awaiting to better judge the impact of aluminum on consumers.
Ford spokesman Mike Levin said insurance costs for the F-150 will be “competitive with other full-size trucks,” noting that cost has been lower than other trucks. Overall, Levine said, “the cost of ownership will be similar or less than today's levels” because of better fuel mileage and advanced materials.
But collision experts such as Rick Turri, vice president for AudaExplore in San Diego, predict repair shops will opt to replace, rather than repair, aluminum parts that are difficult to fit and finish.
“This is the one getting everyone's attention,” Turri said of the high-volume F-150.
The likelihood of replacing an aluminum hood is 44.1 percent, compared with 42.7 percent for steel, he said, citing 2012 industry figures. Though the difference is only 1.4 percent, “when you're dealing with 11 million collision claims a year, that adds up for insurers,” he said.
Front fenders made of aluminum are replaced 55 percent of the time, compared with 52.3 percent for steel. Those differences will drive up repair costs.
“The price of parts, that's when you can get into serious dollars,” he said.
Fewer mechanics will be trained and equipped to repair the aluminum body; repairs will require training in techniques at Ford dealers and independent shops. By one estimate, fewer than 2 percent of the nation's 30,000 independent shops are certified to repair aluminum. Half as many body shops exist compared to 30 years ago, because of the cost of keeping up with technology and complexity of cars and trucks.
“We've done a lot of information-gathering on this,” said Greg Horn, vice president of industry relations for Mitchell International Inc. in San Diego, which provides hourly rates and times for repairs used by shops nationwide.
“The labor increase, on average, was 12 percent. And for materials, it's a 35 to 40 percent increase for aluminum over previous standard models,” Horn said data from aluminum Audis, Jaguars and BMWs show. He expects insurance costs to rise about 10 percent for the aluminum F-150, based on rate increases for those models.
“It's sticker shock after the purchase,” Horn said. “... Consumers truly don't understand the cost increases until afterwards. Ford owners are loyal, and insurance costs usually don't go into the buying decision for most people.”
David Shaffer, owner of a 2013 F-150 in Aliquippa, said the added cost of aluminum parts on the upcoming model “makes me less likely to purchase one.”
“This is a case of feel-good government (mileage) mandates that will force businesses that use trucks to pass the additional costs of transportation on to their customers. There is no free lunch here,” Shaffer said.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which crash-tests vehicles for insurers, expects to complete a study in mid-April, said spokesman Pini Calnite.
The F-150 will be the highest volume aluminum-structure vehicle in history, said Bill Visnic, auto analyst at Edmunds.com. He believes repair costs will be spread over a wider number of dealers and shops.
Ford sold 763,402 F-series trucks in 2013. It does not break out numbers for the F-150.
Alec Gutierrez, senior market analyst for Kelley Blue Book, said accident repair costs will be “more expensive because the work is much more difficult. Where there's damage to aluminum, it's difficult to get the right fit and finish. The panels are more expensive, and consumers will pay more for labor costs to get the vehicle to factory specs.”
With those challenges in mind, Ford designed the F-150 to be easier to repair, Brandt Coultas, an F-150 product marketing manager, said at the Pittsburgh International Auto Show last month. Sections of the F-150 modular frame can be replaced more easily, and its dashboard is designed for easier removal compared to past designs. “Body panels are more ding- and dent-resistant,” Coultas said.
Levine said Ford is working to get dealers up to speed. “We estimate it will cost $30,000 to $50,000 to purchase equipment” for repair work, he said. Ford is helping dealers with training costs.
Coultas said Ford wants aluminum-capable repair shops to be located no more than 1.5 miles from dealers.
“My fear is there won't be enough repair shops when the F-150 first comes to dealers,” said Mark Miller, owner of Greater Pittsburgh Collision Works in Moon, the only area shop certified for aluminum work by Audi. “... That will be the demise of the vehicle if they don't.”
Miller intends to become certified to fix the F-150 and thinks it will be a superior truck. Ford's $50,000 estimate to set up shop “is not any more than other investments I've made,” he said. Still, Ford requires specific tooling, some of it redundant. “They want a specific rivet gun. Why can't I use my Audi rivet gun that cost $10,000?”
John D. Oravecz is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7882 or firstname.lastname@example.org.