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Aluminum Is No Longer A Lightweight in Autos

Twenty years ago, the aluminum industry began using new technology to take over the beverage can business from steel. Today, it wants to do the same thing in cars. Step by step, it's racking up some important gains.

For example:

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*This fall, Audi will introduce its successful all-aluminum A8 cars in the United States.

*Chrysler next January begins production of the Plymouth Prowler, a two-seater hot rod made almost completely out of aluminum.

*General Motors is preparing to introduce its new electric car, the EV-1, which relies heavily on aluminum parts to save weight.

Aluminum's gains won't come easily. For one thing, the metal costs three times as much as steel. For another, the steel industry has its own plans to keep the car business from going the way of the beverage can. "Steel is determined not to have that happen in automobiles," says Paul O'Neill, chairman of Aluminum Company of America, known as Alcoa.

Strategy to woo carmakers

But Alcoa and other aluminum companies are using a two-pronged strategy with some success: one is substituting aluminum for steel parts, and the second is designing an all-aluminum car from the ground up.

Replacing parts traditionally made with steel, such as wheels, engine blocks, and transmission housings, with aluminum-made parts is increasingly commonplace. "We do not have to push this," says Peter Bridenbaugh, Alcoa's executive vice president for automotive. Automakers are eager to use lightweight aluminum, which shaves weight from their cars, because they want to improve fuel economy.

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Aluminum now accounts for 9 percent of the weight of the average mid-size car - up from 6.8 percent five years ago, according to a study done for the Aluminum Association. By 2000, Reynolds Metals Company estimates that figure will jump to 12.5 percent. The automotive industry is already aluminum's biggest customer.

Aluminum's next big target is body panels. By making them out of aluminum, automakers could shave more weight from their cars. At least six major mass-market vehicles, including Ford's F150 truck and Oldsmobile's Aurora, have switched to using at least some aluminum body panels, usually the hood or the trunk lid.

"You're going to see more and more developments ... that will culminate at probably the end of this century with a mass-production all-aluminum car," says Mike Wheeler, director of aluminum and automotive research for Alcan Aluminum Ltd.

The problem with this substitution strategy is that it only goes so far. To really take advantage of aluminum, the automakers have to design cars in new ways. For example, Audi's all-aluminum A8 uses a three-dimensional frame that uses one-third the parts of a traditional steel body. And, because aluminum is so much more rigid than steel, the frame weighs less but provides a quieter, more rattle-free, and safer ride than many traditional steel cars in its class.

Unfortunately, the A8 is also expensive, competing in the $65,000 luxury class of cars that includes the Jaguar XJ6, the S-class Mercedes-Benz, and the BMW 7 series. In that class, the A8 is destined to be a low-volume seller. Audi has sold more than 17,000 A8s since introducing the car in Europe in 1994 and plans to sell about 1,500 a year in the US.

Ditto for the Plymouth Prowler, a $30,000-plus mostly aluminum hot rod. Chrysler plans to make only about 3,000 a year. General Motors' aluminum-intensive electric car - the EV-1 - will also sell in the same price range and in limited quantities.

What aluminum companies hope is to find a way to persuade automakers to make mass-market vehicles out of their metal. So far, Mr. Bridenbaugh of Alcoa knows of no firm plans to build one, although a European manufacturer is considering building an aluminum car that could sell between 50,000 and 100,000 units a year, he says. Europeans, coping with much higher fuel prices than Americans pay, are the most active in terms of building lightweight, fuel-efficient cars out of new materials.

An 80 m.p.g. car the goal

In the US, the effort to build super-fuel-efficient cars has fallen to the federal government's partnership with the Big Three, called the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles. According to PNGV calculations, today's cars will have to lose up to 40 percent of their weight to meet the group's goal of an 80-mile-per-gallon car.

All-aluminum cars already can achieve that weight savings. And with less weight, cars need smaller (and cheaper) engines, brakes, and other components. But the metal's price will have to fall by a quarter or more to be competitive with other materials the consortium is studying, says Andy Sherman, leader of the materials-technology team at PNGV.

So the aluminum industry is working on new casting and other cost-savings technologies that, slowly, are bringing down manufacturing costs. Will it be enough to push steel out of the picture? "I don't like to think of it that way; it's not steel versus aluminum versus plastics," says Bridenbaugh, glancing out his Alcoa office to the headquarters of steelmaker USX. Instead, the car of tomorrow will probably use a combination of materials that, he hopes, will include a lot more aluminum.

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