The pressure to compete for the almighty dollar of the North American truck buyer is driving Ford Motor Co. to look within.
And no, that is not a reference to the meditative aspects of eastern philosophy as the world's second-largest automaker takes on Asian-based carmakers launching their own full-size trucks for the U.S. market.
Rather, it is the hard and real aspects of instrument panels, center consoles, overhead storage systems and trim packages of truck interiors.
``We are going to change the expectation about what a truck can be,'' James Padilla, executive vice president and North American president, said during the Jan. 6 debut of Ford's redesigned F-150 trucks at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
The automaker is calling its new interiors revolutionary, and their debut does mark a new age in competition for the truck sales business, one that recognizes the changing demographics of its buyers.
``It's no longer just the work-use truck that is Spartan on the interior,'' said Jeff Schuster, director of North American forecasting for J.D. Power and Associates in Troy, Mich. ``This has really gone through the same progression of buyers into the truck segments that [sport utility vehicles] did a few years ago.''
That recognition is key as Ford works to retain its status and its dollars from the North American marketplace, where trucks are a major revenue producer.
The updated F-150 comes just as Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. launches its first full-size truck, which also made its debut at the show. The Nissan truck is geared toward the same North American buyers as the 150.
``The new Nissan Titan is going to have everybody looking over their shoulder a little bit,'' Schuster said. ``You have to offer something that's going to separate yourself, and naturally the focus on interiors is one way to do that.''
Ford will produce five different interior packages for the F-150.
``On the trucks today, there's not a heck of a lot of difference inside between the truck the contractor drives and the guy who owns the construction company,'' said Ford truck design manager Jim Smithbauer. ``We wanted to draw a clear differentiation.''
So the F-150 series uses similar design cues to unite the vehicles, but tweaks the molds and material offerings to provide each with a new look.
The instrument panel, for instance, has a series of vertical lines produced from the ABS substrate, painted to mimic aluminum accents or other metals. The type and color of paint used - along with the color and grain of the molded skin - distinguish the various truck styles, from utilitarian to an upscale extended cab.
To add to the mix, the center console receives a paint effect on lower-end models and has an in-mold laminate applied in the higher end trucks.
``We've done a lot with the in-mold film,'' Smithbauer said. ``It's got a [carbon-fiber-look] carbon mesh for the FX4 and a white oak grain for the Lariat, which is the high-end series. This is something where we'd go out to talk to consumers and we'd look at their trucks.
``A lot of them were going out into the aftermarket and buying these plastic laminates and adding them, but then you didn't have the fit and finish and the integrated look you really want to make it look good.''
The design group also altered its view of what it could do with tooling. Consumers buy hundreds of thousands of 150s per year. Ford does not say how many F-150 trucks it sells annually, but they are the centerpiece of the F series, which sold 800,000 units in 2002.
``With that volume, we had to cut multiple tools anyway, so we thought, `Why should they look the same?''' Smithbauer said. ``We actually worked that in our favor.''
So the company created instrument panels and a center console for traditional bench seating and another that allows for bucket seats.
Re-thinking the truck interior also gave supplier Johnson Controls Inc. its first sale for its overhead rail storage. The system uses a parallel set of tracks to hold a series of plastic components that can house everything from the small screen for an entertainment system to containers for gloves, maps or compact discs.
The fact that Ford is debuting a new interior concept on a truck shows how seriously it is taking that space, Schuster said.
``It's definitely a different environment now,'' he said. ``Because of that, as long as Ford can create those unique interiors efficiently, it should bode well for consumers who want much more from their trucks.''