Ford surprises with peek of new F-150

Journalists surround the Ford Atlas concept pickup at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit on Tuesday. The Atlas will become the next generation F-150 due in showrooms sometime in 2014. Enlarge photo

Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

Journalists surround the Ford Atlas concept pickup at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit on Tuesday. The Atlas will become the next generation F-150 due in showrooms sometime in 2014.

DETROIT – Ford Motor, stealing attention from arch-rival General Motors, hosted an unannounced unveiling of a concept truck that will become the next-generation F-150 pickup, arguably the most important product in the U.S. auto industry because of its profits and sales volume.

Called the Atlas concept, the truck was lowered from the ceiling at Joe Louis Arena downtown, accompanied by fireworks and a live band instead of the usual canned music. It came as an afterword, after Ford's Detroit auto show introduction of Transit and Transit Connect commercial vans.

The overhauled F-150 is due in showrooms next year, though Ford won't hint just when or say whether it'll be marketed as a 2014 model or a 2015.

The F-series trucks, including heavy-duty F-250 and F-350 models, are the best-selling vehicles of any kind in the U.S. and account for most of Ford's worldwide profits. Ford's not shy about defining the trucks even more broadly. CEO Alan Mulally: “The F-series is the heart and soul of America.”

Ford for weeks had denied it would roll out a concept version of the next F-series at the North American International Auto Show here, hoping to keep the truck a surprise.

But Ford, expecting a big crowd nonetheless, booked its auto show news conference in the spacious Joe Louis instead of keeping it next door at the Cobo Center, which is home to the auto show and where other news conferences and introductions are held.

Exhibiting a facsimile vehicle so far in advance of its on-sale date is risky. If it's a knockout, some prospective buyers will wait for the new one and sales of the current model drop. That forces the automaker to boost profit-robbing incentives to clear out current vehicle as the new one gets near.

And if those discounts get big enough, some buyers on the sidelines could decide to take the bait, draining the pool of buyers awaiting the new model.

“With an introduction this early, even as a concept, Ford risks the F-150 being old hat once it actually comes to market,” says Eric Lyman, a vice-president at ALG, expert on forecasting depreciation, and thus the value of vehicles several years in the future when owners decide to trade.

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