GM and Ford wage pickup wars over aluminum

The pickup wars have broken out again. Ads from General Motors' (GM) Chevrolet are attacking rival Ford's (F) innovative aluminum-body F-150 pickup as too costly and too slow to repair.

In online ads -- one of which features National Football League hall of famer and broadcaster Howie Long -- Chevrolet suggests that aluminum isn't as strong as steel and that insurance costs are probably higher for the aluminum F-150.

In a previous round of the pickup wars, Chevrolet ran a Super Bowl ad with Chevy truck owners having survived an apocalypse, but their friend wasn't so fortunate because he had a Ford pickup. Ford went to court for a cease and desist order.

The Ford F-series pickups, traditionally the best-selling vehicles in America, have continued to outsell the Chevrolet Silverado in the first half of this year. But in June, F-series sales fell 8.9 percent compared with a year earlier. Ford officials said this resulted solely from insufficient supply because of the changeover to the new model at its manufacturing plants.

How valid are the companies' respective claims? Let's take a closer look at the pros and cons of using aluminum in pickup bodies:

Aluminum is lighter for better gas mileage. Ford says the 2015 F-150 is 700 pounds lighter than the 2014 steel-body version. Indeed, that lighter weight seems to have given the F-150 an MPG advantage over Silverado. The Ford F-150 with the six-cylinder engine is EPA-rated for 19 MPG in city driving and 26 on the highway. The steel-body Silverado is rated at 18 and 24 MPG.

Aluminum isn't as strong as steel. In one of the Chevy ads, two cages are in a room -- one of steel and one of aluminum. When a 700-pound grizzly bear roars into the room, the men in there all run for the steel cage. However, crash tests don't seem to bear to back up their choice. In the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration crash test ratings, the aluminum F-150 gets the top five-star rating -- the same as the steel-body Silverado.

Aluminum bodies cost more and take longer to repair. Not true, says Ford truck spokesman Mike Levine. He told MoneyWatch that at dealerships with the proper tools and training, cost and time for repairs should be comparable to steel. Levine said technicians at about 1,500 dealers and independent body shops -- about half the total -- have had that training.

However, auto website Edmunds.com damaged a rear fender on a new F-150 on purpose and then took it into a dealership for repair. The service manager told the Edmunds editor that repairing the aluminum fender would take longer than it would for a steel truck. And the $2,982 repair bill was at least $600 more than for a steel-body truck, Edmunds calculated. The differential could be even greater depending on the hourly labor rate a dealership charges.

Higher repair costs mean higher insurance costs for aluminum pickups. The GM ads, without citing data, suggest that the aluminum pickups cost more to insure. This doesn't seem to be true. Using a rate quotations tool on InsuranceQuotes.com, premiums for the F-150 and the Silverado seem to be about the same in Texas -- the state with the most pickups on the road.

And in the future, GM may have a harder time bashing aluminum truck bodies. According to reports in Forbes and elsewhere, the next generation of Silverado will use aluminum bodies.