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Lightweight vehicles focal point at auto show

Keywords: Tags  Detroit auto show, vehicle lightweighting, Ford Motor, Honda Motor, Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen, aluminum, advanced high-strength steel carbon fiber

DETROIT — Vehicles capable of achieving better fuel economy and lower emissions through the use of lightweight materials, such as aluminum and advanced high-strength steels, were a focal point of this year’s North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

The event kicked off with Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford Motor Co.’s introduction of its redesigned aluminum-bodied F-150 pickup truck (, Jan. 13), and was followed by unveilings of vehicles featuring increased use of lightweight metals from a variety of automakers, including Tokyo-based Honda Motor Co. Ltd., Stuttgart, Germany-based Mercedes-Benz and Wolfsburg, Germany-based Volkswagen AG.

While much of the talk has centered on innovations used in the development and application of lightweight aluminum alloys, several major manufacturers said advanced high-strength steel continues to play a crucial role in the decade-long push toward lighter, more fuel-efficient vehicles.

"The Acura MDX has a structural ring behind the door that is constructed from hot-stamped high-strength steel. It’s one of the first times it’s ever been done and is new to 2014 on the MDX," a spokesman for American Honda Motor Co. Inc.’s Acura division told AMM, adding that the use of advanced high-strength steel on the MDX accounts for about 275 pounds in weight savings. "Essentially, it’s the basis for the entire advanced compatibility engineering structure."

The MDX was designed to perform very well in offset crash tests, the spokesman said, adding that advanced high-strength steel used in the door frame is the key component to the vehicle’s performance in that type of frontal crash testing.

However, one point of concern for those with steel and aluminum interests is the recent shift to composite materials, namely carbon fiber, in higher-end performance vehicles. The push toward carbon fiber to replace advanced high-strength steel and lightweight aluminum alloy, is a "very real thing," several major manufactures, including Munich-based BMW AG, noted.

"We are using more and more carbon fiber—really transitioning from steel to carbon fiber," Ludwig Willisch, president of Woodcliff Lake, N.J.-based BMW of North America LLC, told AMM. "You can do a lot with carbon fiber; we even played around with making the frame and doors from carbon fiber, the whole side panel. You can basically use it everywhere instead of using metal. We are definitely moving in that direction."

For the time being, however, it appears that composite materials, which can be expensive to produce, won’t be featured prominently on most mainstream vehicles.

"Lightweighting is important, but is also a factor of how much it costs," Michael Horn, president and chief executive officer of Volkswagen Group of America Inc., Herndon, Va., told AMM. "Step by step in the past it was always new car, bigger car, more heavy. And now we work ourselves down because everything belongs to the fuel-efficiency game."

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