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Steely Resolve From Steel Industry as Aluminum Tries to Get In On Lightening Cars

Sections: Chassis, Fuel Economy

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An aluminum car rim viewed at a low angle

Aluminum is gaining popularity as automakers are under pressure from governments to lighten their cars, but its expense sees it losing out to high-strength steels that can achieve the same weight reduction at reduced prices. (Kml photo courtesy http://www.stockfreeimages.com/)

The auto industry is under pressure to lighten its vehicles to reduce emissions and boost fuel economy. That’s a potential boon for aluminum producers and a possible bust for the steel industry. But the steel folks are saying, “Not so fast.”

According to an article in Automotive News(subscription may be required), high-strength steels will “likely…dominate in Europe” while aluminum, at one-third the weight of steel, will likely be used more extensively in the United States to cut down on the weight of our larger vehicles, especially trucks and SUVs. The article added, “Conventional steel will be the big loser in both areas.”

Citing an example of high-strength steel’s popularity with European automakers, the article said Volkswagen used it to lighten the newest Golf by 220 lbs. But it isn’t only a popular solution with the Europeans– the article said Ford is making use of high-strength steels, including an alloy using boron, for more than half the Fiesta’s body structure. Nissan, meanwhile, is said to be considering use of high-strength steels to cut at least 33 lbs from each vehicle it sells this year. In North America alone, the article said use of high-strength steel “nearly doubled between 2005 and 2009 to 150 lbs (68 kg) per vehicle and is due to more than double again to 365 lbs (166 kg) by 2025.”

Why go with a complex steel alloy when simpler aluminum could do the job at even lighter weights? Cost. The article said, “Cutting one lb of car weight with advanced high strength steel costs about 50 cents while using aluminum costs four times as much.”

Aluminum, the article said, has made “extensive inroads” on some car components– engine blocks, heat exchangers, transmissions, and wheels, to name a few– but still comprises just 8% of the weight of a typical car versus 60% for steel.

We have previously covered how GM plans to make use of high-strength steels on its new full-size pickup trucks due out later this year, and the internet was abuzz not so long ago about Ford’s plans to possibly use aluminum body panels in lightening its best-selling F-150 pickup by up to 700 lbs. While the so-called “half-ton” pickup trucks of America may stand to benefit the most from lightweight body and structural components, we can’t help but wonder what might be achieved if that lightening were accompanied by giving them more aerodynamic shapes and bringing their ride heights back down to the levels seen in the mid- to late ’90s. Anyone who has owned an example of both that era of American full-size truck and the latest, butchest, supersized era will know what we’re on about.

As for lightweight materials making our small cars more fuel efficient? Bring it on. Part of what driving enthusiasts miss about small cars is the stellar fuel economy and responsive handling they used to have a couple of decades ago, before safety- and luxury feature-creep started loading them up with poundage to the point they would compare to most of us at our 20-year high school reunion– fatter, less-attractive versions of those we remember from our youth. There’s still time to turn it around, as we hope ever-lighter versions of cool, highly efficient future cars like the Ford Fiesta 1.0 EcoBoost will illustrate.

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