Ford Motor Co gave a sneak peek on Tuesday at the future direction of its highly popular F-150 pickup truck series by unveiling a concept version called the "Atlas" that reflects Ford's push to improve gas mileage across its product line.
The vehicle, due out for the 2015 model year, will be much lighter than its predecessor and has a more rugged look. It also represents a vision of the future of pickup trucks that contrasts with that of rival General Motors Co.
Pickup trucks are a lucrative slice of the U.S. automotive market, and the Ford F-150 is the best-selling vehicle in the United States.
The F-150 concept is outfitted with the next generation of Ford's turbocharged engine, known as EcoBoost, to wring out more miles per gallon. It also features active grille and wheel shutters to improve aerodynamics - a technology that improves fuel economy by about 2 percent, Ford has previously said.
Ford shares rose 2.2 percent to close at $14.30, the highest level in about 18 months, after the Atlas unveiling on Tuesday.
The concept "shows that we're going to do whatever it takes to be preferred in the market segment," Chief Executive Alan Mulally told reporters Tuesday during an industry conference held in conjunction with the Detroit auto show.
"Every indication that we're absolutely committed to improving these vehicles is a major proof point for the Ford plan," he said. "That is what is going to allow us to grow."
The second-largest U.S. automaker is cutting the weight of its cars and trucks and using turbocharged engines to meet stricter federal standards for fuel economy and attract the growing number of truck buyers who value fuel-efficiency.
Ford must comply with the U.S. government's target for corporate average fuel economy of 54.5 mpg by 2025. This translates to 36 mpg or higher in real world driving - on average.
Boosting fuel economy in trucks is particularly challenging because they are large and must be capable of towing heavy loads. Using hybrid and electric car technology on these models remains extremely costly.
While Ford said the next F-150 would be lighter than the outgoing version, executives stopped short of specifying the kinds of materials or weight savings targeted for the new F-150. Raj Nair, head of global product development, said Ford is exploring the use of lightweight materials like high-strength steel, aluminum and carbon fiber across its lineup.
In its F-150 overhaul, Ford is looking to shave an