Ford F-150 Will Lead Detroit Auto Show Parade

DETROIT (TheStreet) -- When major changes to the best-selling U.S. vehicle are expected to be unveiled on the first day of the Detroit Auto Show, it's hard to imagine that won't be the biggest story at the show. Everybody wants to see what the 2015 Ford (F) F-150 will look like.

GM (GM) chose to roll out its new Chevrolet Silverado a month before the last year's show, saying it did not want to detract from the show's Corvette rollout. On Monday, the Silverado is likely to be honored as North American truck of the year. GM also has two of the three finalists for car of the year.

But now it is Ford's turn.

"The F-150 is hugely important and will be the vehicle of the show," said Karl Brauer, an analyst for Kelly Blue Book and one of 48 auto journalists who votes for the North American Car and Truck/Utility of the Year. "It will have so many upgrades as well as an aluminum structure, meaning a substantial drop in weight. Everything gets better when a vehicle gets lighter."

Edmunds.com analyst Jessica Caldwell said, "There is already so much buzz around the F-150, including a lot of questions about how the aluminum body will affect weight reduction, fuel economy and performance. I wonder if it will be something people embrace, or if people will think it strays too far from what a truck is. The traditional truck market is not used to radical change."

Today's world, however, demands fuel economy. James Bell, GM's head of consumer affairs, said automakers have three cards to play: downsize the engine, improve the aerodynamics and lighten the vehicle. In introducing the 2014 Silverado, GM made improvements in every area, but much of the initial attention seemed focused on the lighter engines and improved aerodynamics.

"We lightened the vehicle, but it wasn't the exclusive thing," Bell said. "We put great focus on downsizing the engine and on aerodynamics (as well as) materials.

 "Ford will have a strong show, but we're not bothered by that," he added. "It's not about owning the show year after year. What's great about the car business is that everybody brings their "A" game to Detroit."

Besides the F-150, top introductions are likely to be the Chrysler 200, the Honda (HMC) Fit and the GMC Canyon mid-size pickup truck.

Caldwell said the Chrysler 200 is important because "Chrysler's weak point is still cars," while Brauer said: "Chrysler needs to do this well; it hasn't had a viable midsize competitor for a long time."

Dodge Ram was the fifth best-selling U.S. vehicle in 2013, with sales of 355,673 units. (F Series sold 763,402 units, while second-place Silverado sold 480,414.) "Ram is doing well and Jeep has done well, but cars are an issue for Chrysler," Caldwell said. With mid-size sedans the second biggest U.S. vehicle segment, "a more credible entry in that segment would be good," she said.

The Honda Fit, meanwhile, "is hugely important for Honda (because) it still remains their ticket into the brand," Brauer said. "Accord does very well as a mid-size car, but Honda cannot abandon the subcompact entry level class. Kia and Hyundai are right there with their entries, so Honda is saying 'we are still here - don't think we are abandoning this category.' "

Caldwell noted that the Fit will be produced in Mexico rather than Japan, which ought to enable Honda to boost capacity for the popular vehicle.

While GM will not have a major unveil at the show, it will roll out the 2015 GMC Canyon, the twin to the Chevrolet Colorado. The Canyon will enable GMC, like Chevrolet, to offer a full line of mid-size, full-size and heavy-duty pickups. Caldwell said the Canyon rollout underscores the continued importance of pickup trucks to the U.S. auto industry. "We saw Colorado already, so it will be interesting to see if the Canyon looks different," Caldwell said. "Sibling vehicles used to be more popular than they are today."

Brauer will also be watching the new Mercedes C-Class, which was revealed in December, and the Toyota (TM) Supra concept, which is expected to be shown at Detroit. "C Class was Mercedes entry car for years, but it has been replaced by the CLA, which has done well and is cannibalizing C Class sales," he said. "Mercedes says C Class still matters, but it will have to be repositioned."

Meanwhile, Supra, a high-performance sports coupe, "will enable Toyota to be a more passionate company, not an appliance/toaster company," Brauer said.

Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.

To contact this writer, click here.

Follow @tedreednc

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