Sitting behind the wheel of a Maserati GranSport GT, cruising along at maybe 50mph (the speedo was busted). I’m waiting for one of the lights ahead to switch from green to red. I’m supposed to turn into the lane next to whichever light remains green, then back into the center lane before coming to a stop. The right light turns red. I jink left, feeding the wheel from my right hand to my left, keeping both arms positioned at nine and three. When I re-grab the wheel with my left hand, I encounter a harder-than-steel carbon fiber steering wheel. I jam my middle finger but good. Man, I hate that stuff.
Ever since the super leggere McLaren F1 debuted, pistonheads have regarded carbon fiber as the ne plus ultra material for high-end whips. The triple-scientifically complex baked resin is both lighter (faster!) and stronger (survive!) than steel. Porsche’s Carrera GT was the first car to boast a carbon fiber monocoque chassis, which is way stiffer than two coques and the F1 way of things. Of course this totally rad material has an equally outrageous price tag; the Carrera GT sold for $440k. Alternatively, you can retro-fit your 997 cabin with carbon fiber (steering wheel, transmission tunnel, doors, pull handles, cupholders, door sills, shift knob and e-brake) for around $6500. An aftermarket E36 M3 carbon fiber hood will set you back a mere $1050.
Pricey yes, but should you pull an Erikson and smash into something at 200mph, at least you’re safer with carbon fiber than steel, right? Er, no. Top Gear fans will recall that The Stig crashed an 800hp+ Koenigsegg CCX’s carbon fiber nose into some old tires. As Jezza noted, the Koenigsegg’s front was shattered, like glass. Translation: carbon fiber withstands one [massive] impact and… that’s it. If Mr. Erikson’s Enzo had struck another solid object after shearing in two on a telephone poll, he couldn’t have blamed the crash on Detrich, or anyone else.
At the moment, exotic carbon fiber monocoques simply mean dead rich guys. However, like variable-valve timing and dual clutches, carbon fiber could easily start trickling down. Reference the Maserati Coupe and Porsche Carrera, carbon fiber has already invaded sports car cabins. Will manufacturers’ ongoing struggle to raise their models’ mileage to meet federal CAFE standards lead to the mass production of carbon fiber parts, including safety-critical components like the chassis and door panels? The scary thing is that NHTSA crash ratings are based on single-strike events. Carbon could outperform steel in federal tests, and kill you dead on the road.
Carbon fiber interiors aren’t so clever either. Why would anyone want anything harder than steel so close to their skull? The switch from metal dashboards to soft, spongy ones was a major automotive safety innovation. I discovered the hard way why carbon fiber is bad. And that was only a finger. Imagine an unbelted noggin. Sure, I know: the entire dash isn’t covered in the stuff, just the steering wheel, the gear knob, the center console, a strip over the glove box and the door inserts. But even if you avoid making high-tech head-on contact, how are you going to defend yourself against a T-boning Ford Excursion pushing those carbon fiber door inserts straight through your kidney?
Meanwhile, aesthetically, it’s a nightmare. The otherwise perfect interior of the Maserati Quattroporte Sport GT has extra helpings of baked plastic all over the joint, and it looks silly. In fact, when my companion and I climbed out of the four-door and into a two-door GT, we were much more impressed by the leather dash (and could have used some alone time when we clocked the leather headliner…). Anyhow, why would any self-respecting millionaire want a car with an interior swathed in the same crap as the kid’s CRX down the street? Even Jeep’s Liberty has fake carbon fiber all over the place. Talk about post-modern irony: low-tech plastic designed to look like high-tech plastic developed to save weight in race cars in an SUV? They might as well bring back the Landau roof.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for automotive innovation. I generally slap my forehead whenever the “cars are too hard to work on these days” conversation starts. I want smarter computers and super lightweight stuff helping me go faster, and then faster again. But I don’t want to look at it. Carbon fiber dashes are one step removed from plastering interiors with circuit boards. Obviously, engineers are proud of this miracle material and they want the whole world to know it. As it turns out, sodium-filled exhaust valves are also something of a techno breakthrough. Why not cover a car’s interior with salt? Manufacturers should continue surrounding us in steel cages, while cabin designers should carry on stealing their interiors from Audi.