• Video: Ford’s new aluminum F-150.
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Nearly gone are the gas-guzzling SUVs of the late '90s with miles-per-gallon ratings lower than most adult shoe sizes. Today, consumers cite fuel economy over performance and even reliability as the most influential reason for purchasing a new vehicle.
And drivers interested in stretching their gas mileage will have plenty to see at this year's Midlands International Auto Show. Roughly 400 vehicles are on the floor of the CenturyLink Center Omaha today through Sunday.
Among the most anticipated new vehicles at this year's show? The 2015 Ford F-150, appearing with its heavier-duty F-350 cousin.
If it seems strange to include a pickup in any discussion of fuel-efficient vehicles, it helps to consider Ford redesigned its flagship F-150 to feature a cab and bed made almost entirely of aluminum. Those efforts helped to shave about 700 pounds from its weight.
Drivers can expect improved performance in the way of towing and hauling as well as better gas mileage, though Ford has not yet released estimates.
For the best-selling vehicle in the country, such a drastic redesign is “a huge issue,” said Alan Baum, principal and analyst at auto industry research firm Baum and Associates.
“This rendition of the F-150 is probably more important than most because it's Ford's effort to dramatically improve the fuel economy and the competitiveness of what is their most important vehicle in North America,” Baum said.
Given the popularity of the F-150, smaller auto body repair shops may be challenged to find space to repair aluminum body panels, which must be isolated from any steel particles to avoid corrosion.
Tom Wortmann, president and owner of Inter-Tech Collision Centers, said additional tools and certification to train technicians how to weld aluminum is an expensive proposition, but he doesn't expect the new design will have a significant impact on local businesses.
“There's already a lot of aluminum going into cars today,” he said, citing makes and models like the Audi A4 and the Buick Lucerne. “We've been fixing aluminum for a long time.”
Whether future F-150 owners will incur additional insurance costs also remains to be seen, according to State Farm spokeswoman Ann Avery.
One thing is certain: It's a big deal to have the truck on display in Omaha.
Other fuel-efficient vehicles brought in for the show include a handful of Toyota Prius models averaging 50 miles per gallon; a 2014 Lexus CT 200h hybrid boasting 42 mpg; and a gas-only Scion tC coupe averaging 26 mpg.
Also on display? Cadillacs, including the plug-in ELR. Consider it General Motors' more polished, upper-class version of the Chevy Volt.
To be sure, there will be far fewer electric-hybrid Cadillacs jetting around Omaha than aluminum F-150s in the years to come — manufacturer's suggested retail price for the ELR starts at $75,000 — but industry analyst Baum called the luxury brand's foray into the plug-in hybrid segment a statement.
“(Cadillac) has been involved for over 10 years in trying to redefine the brand and has made a significant amount of progress. ... While the ELR is a niche vehicle, it is technologically a very ground-breaking vehicle,” Baum said.
Ron Huber, owner of Huber Chevy Cadillac in Omaha, was instrumental in bringing Cadillac to Omaha for this year's event and said that even though Toyota “has owned the hybrid market for a number of years,” domestic manufacturers like Chevy have made inroads to introduce more consumers to domestic hybrid vehicles.
Where hybrids once cost significantly more than their gas-only counterparts, Performance Toyota of La Vista President Jess Hull said that spread has retreated to “no more than $1,500 to $3,000, depending on the car line.”
“It's become justifiable to spend a little more for a car to get better gas mileage,” Hull said.
Domestic price points are on the way down, as well, Huber countered, especially on models like the Volt.
On its plug-in hybrid, Chevy dropped $5,000 from the manufacturer's suggested retail price for the 2014 model year. Factor in a $7,500 federal tax credit for brand-new purchases and consumers can now drive one off the lot for less than $28,000, compared with a sticker price of $39,995 for the 2013 model.
The Volt's primary competitor is the U.S.-built Nissan Leaf, which had $6,400 pared from the MSRP between 2012 and 2013. A 2014 model starts at $28,980 and also qualifies for a $7,500 federal tax credit.
The Leaf is all-electric and can take riders about 85 miles on a single charge in perfect conditions. Chevy boasts up to 380 miles total range for its plug-in hybrid Volt, which uses a smaller gas engine to complement an electric motor.
To be sure, comparing a Volt with a Leaf is apples and oranges.
“(The Leaf) was not brought to life to drive distance,” said Jason Martin, sales manager at Nissan of Omaha. “It's strictly a commuter car.”
Martin said the Leaf's typical driver commutes from west of the metro area to downtown Omaha, though in perfect conditions, it can travel as far as 110 miles. On colder winter days, the expected range is 65 to 75 miles.
Favored both for distance and short commutes, the Toyota Prius family is powered by a parallel hybrid drivetrain that uses a small electric motor at low speeds and in tandem with a primary gas engine.
By contrast, the Chevy Volt is known as a series hybrid and has to be plugged in to charge its primary electric motor.
No matter the competition, it will be some time before Toyota's Prius family of hybrids will be unseated from its throne. Research from Baum's firm compiled by HybridCars.com showed that Toyota commanded almost 50 percent of U.S. hybrid market share in 2013.
In December, the Prius family recorded 14,801 sales in the United States, while the Ford Fusion Hybrid, the next-closest competitor, clocked less than 3,000 sales.
But sales of the Fusion Hybrid grew 164 percent in 2013, slightly closing the gap behind the clear-cut hybrid leader.
Jim Duffack Jr., general manager at Bellevue Toyota, said he believes the public has finally come to terms with hybrid vehicles, thanks in large part to eye-popping fuel economy that averages up to 50 mpg for a 2013 Toyota Prius C hybrid.
“They are safe, dependable and get tremendous gas mileage to save them a lot of money,” Duffack said. “And they're environmentally friendly.”
Duffack's final point was reinforced by a Jan. 15 survey published by J.D. Power and Associates, the same survey that found consumers cite fuel economy over performance and reliability in vehicle choices. It also found that those who purchased pure electric vehicles were more concerned about the environment than the price at the pump.
Said Jon Osborn, research director at J.D. Power: “It's important for automakers to understand what motivates new-vehicle buyers to shop and purchase a particular model.”