Ford redesigns its best-selling F-150 pickup for 2018

The change comes just two years after launching an all-new version of its top-selling model

Ford is giving a new look to the F-150 pickup for 2018. Different trim levels will have different grilles.  Ford Motor

Ford redesigns its best-selling F-150 pickup for 2018

Ford is updating the look of its F-150 pickups — featuring a redesigned grille — just two years after launching an all-new version of its top-selling model. Ford

Ford is reshaping the look of its best-selling F-150 pickups for the 2018 model year, including body colored grilles instead of chrome on some versions(Photo: Ford Motor)

DETROIT -- Ford is updating the look of its F-150 pickups — featuring a redesigned grille — just two years after launching an all-new version of its top-selling model.

The refresh is evidence that the Dearborn, Mich.-based automaker is committed to continuing to invest heavily to keep its F-Series trucks the most popular in America.

The confirmed F-150 mid-cycle refresh for the 2018 model year is largely a bunch of tweaks: redesigned front-end grille and wheel options; bolder seat colors; first-in-class technological offerings; and a new diesel engine among other enhanced features designed to reach a broad cross-section of truck buyers.

But Ford officials  insist continuous improvement every year is crucial for the massively profitable vehicle now marking 40 years as the nation’s best-selling truck.

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Michelle Krebs, senior analyst for Autotrader.com, an online marketplace for vehicle shopping, said the addition of a diesel engine Is big news especially for the towing audience of diesel enthusiasts while helping Ford's need to meet increasing fuel economy standards.

"Added technology features fit with what we hear from consumers who want more and more technology, specifically safety features and information features that make them more connected," Krebs said. The integration of Apple Car Play and Android Auto — two ways to access smartphone features inside your car — is a response, she added, "to consumers, who according to our surveys, want seamless transition of their mobile devices into their transportation."

The changes are not as dramatic as those that transformed the F-150 in the 2015 model year when Ford turned to an all-aluminum body, the first such transformation for a major American-made truck.

But the second-largest U.S. automaker hopes to get a leg up on its competition by unveiling the updated truck line, which accounts for nearly one-third of its North American sales, today before the official auto show media days begin.

“Truck customers are constantly looking to improve their productivity, for work and for play,” Joe Hinrichs, Ford president of the Americas, said in a statement. “Since 1977, we’ve been America’s favorite truck, and we’ve never taken that leadership for granted.”

Ford will kick off its marketing campaign for the updated pickups with a nationally televised commercial first airing during an NFL playoff game on Fox Sunday.

The idea behind the F-150 face-lift is a "bolder Built Ford Tough style," company officials said. But its aluminum make-up has also come under attack from rivals in commercials.

Officials at General Motors last week, for example, argued that their Detroit-based company has a broader lineup of trucks than Ford. Total Chevrolet and GMC full-size and midsize pickup sales were 942,730, "making GM the best-selling pickup company for the second consecutive year." (Ford F-Series full-size deliveries totaled 820,799 units in 2016).

In an era of technology-laden cars and trucks, Ford is equipping the next-year model for its signature truck line with radar and cameras to slow or stop a vehicle before it has a chance to collide with a pedestrian or another vehicle. Adaptive cruise control can keep the appropriate distance even in traffic that grinds to a standstill. A Wi-Fi hotspot is also available to help motorists to stay connected online.

The company touts the new F-150 as being capable of its best towing ever, but declined to release details. Each pickup in the F-150 lineup will have automatic start-stop technology designed to shut off the engine while the truck is stopped to save fuel. They'll also offer a 3.0-liter turbodiesel engine, enhanced V6 and V8 gas engines and expanded availability of 10-speed automatic transmissions.

It has been a big year for automakers, especially those heavily weighted in SUVs and trucks. They sold a record number of new cars and trucks in the U.S. for 2016, topping 2015's level and capping a seven-year run of rising sales, but it took more costly deals to do it.

For the year, sales at Ford were essentially flat, falling 0.1%.

But the overall industry, including Ford, has seen healthy profits boosted by sales of larger vehicles and fueled by easy credit, low gas prices and more recently by generous rebates on many models.

Sales of Ford's Ford F-Series pickups increased about 5% in 2016, and the automaker's line of pickups has now been America’s best-selling truck for 40 consecutive years and America’s best-selling vehicle for 35 years. But analysts say that rising interest rates and gas prices, combined with an end to pent-up demand, will cause overall sales to soften slightly in 2017.

Still, experts say the industry will sell more than 16 million new vehicles this year, barring unexpected economic turmoil or a trade war that could trigger steep price increases.

The new 2018 F-150 goes on sale this fall, and prices have not been announced. It will be built at the Dearborn Truck Plant and the Kansas City Assembly Plant in Missouri.

As for other offerings possible during Monday's presentation, several auto analysts said they expected Ford could roll out a new Expedition modeled on the all-aluminum approach used for the F-150. Ford said in September at a meeting with investors that the company would launch an all-new Expedition this year.

“I am hoping to see a new Ford expedition with 10-speed automatic transmission. It will be the first all body-on-frame aluminum SUV on the road,” said Dave Sullivan, an automotive analyst with AutoPacific.

Ford also hasn’t completely overhauled its aging Expedition for roughly 15 years, Sullivan said.

Demand for large SUVs has been generally robust. Sales of the Expedition increased 44% in 2016 to 59,853.

Meanwhile, GM has been making tons of money in recent years as sales have increased for its full-size, body-on-frame SUVs. In 2016, sales increased 16.9% for the Chevrolet Tahoe, 18.3% for the Chevrolet Suburban and 25% for the GMC Yukon and sold a total of 216,835 of those SUVs.

GM, Sullivan said, is making big profits from those SUVs and has created a “magic formula,” and Ford would like to get a larger share of the sales.