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Nov 08, 2012 | 09:36 PM

Tesla, Alcoa and a telling twist in the lightweighting wars

Tags  Alcoa, Tesla Motors Inc., Automobile Magazine, Model S, electric vehicle, Automobile of 2013, aluminum-intensive, all-aluminum Mark Vrablec

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In case you missed it—a possibility Alcoa Inc. went out of its way to guard against—aluminum chalked up another PR victory in the automotive lightweighting wars recently when Automobile Magazine crowned Tesla Motors Inc.’s Model S aluminum-intensive, electric premium sedan its 2013 Automobile of the Year.

The coverage didn’t spark nearly the firestorm a Wall Street Journal piece detailing Ford Motor Co.’s radical re-design of its best-selling F-150 pickup truck—complete with a largely aluminum body—ignited earlier this year but it did allow the aluminum industry another opportunity to put its best foot forward.

Based on a quick read of the article celebrating the merits of the Tesla Model S, the electric vehicle more than lived up to its billing. "We weren’t expecting much from the Tesla other than some interesting dinner conversation as we considered ‘real’ candidates like the Subaru BRZ and the Porsche Boxster," one of the publication’s editors acknowledged. "In fact, the Tesla blew them, and us, away."

"Driving the Model S is decidedly not like piloting a Nissan leaf or an electric Smart," another wrote.

That may be an understatement given the lofty price tag of Tesla’s premium sedan. Automobile Magazine’s editors peg the starting price of a Model S with an 85-kilowatt-hour battery, like the one tested, at $78,750 (before a $7,500 tax break). Less expensive versions with smaller batteries and shorter distance ranges start at about $20,000 less, also before deductions.

"We have always said that the all-aluminum Tesla Model S is a marvel and it is great to see a leading publication such as Automobile Magazine agree," Mark Vrablec, president of Alcoa’s aerospace, transportation and industrial products group, said in a statement issued to promote and advise those not-in-the-know of the win. "We congratulate the entire Tesla team on this achievement and we look forward to their continued revolutionary work."

For all its revolutionary cachet, aluminum intensity and road-hugging pizazz, the Model S—and the designers and engineers behind it—still couldn’t convince themselves to leave high-strength steel on the side of the road.

Stiletto is not sure the folks at Alcoa noticed but after all the show-and-tell when Tesla begins talking safety on the website featuring its Model S, it talks steel. "The Model S body is a state-of-the-art, aluminum-intensive design," the text reads. "Weight-saving benefits make aluminum a natural choice. Extrusions, stampings and castings are expertly joined for rigidity and strength." So far, so good. Go aluminum.

Once the topic turns to occupant safety, however, steel pops up in the script. "Unhindered by an internal combustion engine, the front of the car is optimized for occupant safety," Tesla explains. "Perfectly straight double-octagonal rails run along the bottom of the structure and are designed to absorb the energy of impact if one should occur. High-strength steel is used in key areas to enhance occupant safety." Hmmm.

In a second take, this time in the form of a caption accompanying an artist’s rendering of the rigid occupant cell of the Model S, Tesla notes that "high-strength steel is combined with aluminum to augment safety." Double hmmm.

Don’t get us wrong. Stiletto isn’t implying the discovery of a steel "nugget" relating to a car Alcoa billed in a wire release as "all-aluminum" is anything more than a "gotcha" moment in the always simmering automotive materials wars.

But whether for reasons rooted in sound engineering, historical performance, government regulation, consumer preference or a combination of all the above, Tesla built high-strength steel into the safety quotient of the award-winning Model S. Calling Automobile Magazine’s 2013 Automobile of the Year "all-aluminum" may not be a hit-and-run, but it is a stretch.


Jo Isenberg

Jo Isenberg is executive editor of AMM. She has been covering the steel industry for over 30 years and has served as editor of AMM for the last 11 years – the most successful decade in the publication’s long history.