Adding Lightness, Reducing Compromise

Edward Niedermeyer
by Edward Niedermeyer

Reading a long-term test of a stripped-and-slammed Renaultsport Mégane R26.R in evo Magazine, I couldn’t help but chuckle. In true enthusiast style, the author simultaneously bemoans the disappearance of such factory-racer hot-hatches and attempts to argue that they’re not really that impractical. Between the picture of the author’s bicycle sharing hatch space with a bright red racing cage and his amazingly sincere insistence that driving without a radio is more zen exercise than deprivation, the picture was clear: enthusiasts are absolute nutters. We’re willing to make ludicrous defenses of cars that are as light and stripped-out as possible, while the mainstream begs for ever more weight, comfort and isolation. As at least one commenter in today’s Honda product thread noted, automakers would be nuts to listen too hard to enthusiasts. Unless there were ways to reduce weight without making a car totally unappealing to the appliance fans. Could it be possible?

Carbon fiber has already become a popular choice for lightening vehicles. From the M3 Coupe’s roof to the Viper ACR’s wing, from the Zonda F’s bodywork to those cool dash inserts in the neighbor kid’s slammed Civic, carbon fiber is to cars what adderal is to college students: a shortcut to losing weight and improving performance. But like the prescription stimulant, carbon fiber has its downsides. Especially when used as a quick-fix. Shattering bodywork, racer-boy image issues and prohibitive cost all take the shine off of bolt-on carbon bits as they’re currently offered.

But what about carbon-fiber composites used as structural components? The $375k Lexus LF-A’s use of Carbon Fiber Reinforced Plastic shows one way future vehicles could be made lighter and stiffer without a lot of compromising modifications that make sense only to trackday fanatics. Sure, the cost is obviously still a huge issue, but Toyota claims the technology will be used in mass-production Lexus models within four or five years.

And Toyota isn’t the only firm looking at carbon fiber-reinforced polymers for vehicle frames. The New York Times notes that the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, Germany’s MAG Industrial Automation Systems and the Japanese textile firm Toray Industries, among others, are working all-out to develop ever-cheaper carbon-reinforced materials. Toray alone has spent over $100m developing vehicle platforms based on polymer-carbon fiber composites, and their time-frame for commercialization is about the same as Toyota’s.

Another sign that lighter cars might be possible without sacrificing mainstream features comes from development of a more prosaic component: the seat. With up to 18 motors, massage functions, heaters, coolers and more, modern car seats have become shockingly heavy. But according to the print edition of Auto Motor und Sport, BMW reckons knocking that weight out without giving up comfort would not only improve efficiency, it could improve interior room as well. And if you’ve ever spent much time in the backseat of a 3 Series, you know how welcome that would be. Accordingly, BMW has shown three seat concepts: A “Bionic Seat” with a nature-inspired backrest, a “Space Comfort Shell” which was developed using human body imprints and uses adaptive cushions to cocoon passengers, and an “Ergo Seat.” The final concept incorporates elements of the Bionic and Space Comfort concepts to create a seat that BMW says is as comfortable as any of its offerings, while saving ten percent weight savings over its current Sport Seats… with more improvements to come.

Neither carbon fiber-polymer composite frames nor radically rethought seating is expected to trickle into mass-market cars anytime soon. Still, the fact that luxury firms are starting to focus on weight reduction is an interesting shift in the lifecycle of automotive innovation. In the past, lighter and faster materials and techniques were pioneered on the racetrack, and filtered into (usually top-spec) performance cars. Now, luxury firms are latching onto lighter materials and techniques to improve efficiency and interior space as much as performance. Though these innovations are a ways off, it shows that lighter cars may someday become a trend that appliance drivers and enthusiasts alike can embrace.

Edward Niedermeyer
Edward Niedermeyer

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  • Dolo54 Dolo54 on Oct 29, 2009

    I actually took the (powered) driver seat out of my 300zx last weekend to get under the dash. That thing weighed like 100 lbs. I couldn't believe how heavy it was. Now I want some light weight seats in there. I can give up power for knobs no problem.

  • Thesal Thesal on Oct 29, 2009

    There seems to be something more than just "luxury" adding weight. Eg. Buick Lacrosse vs ES350. Isn't the buick disproportionately heavier considering size and "luxury levels"? Similar scenario - M5 vs Cadillac CTS-V...any ideas?

  • Geozinger Put in the veggie garden (Western Michigan, we still can get frost this late in the year) finished the remainder of the landscaping updates and hand washed both my beater Pontiac and the Town and Country! Going to the beach today...
  • Rochester I wouldn't obsess over the rate of change, it's happening whether we want it or not.
  • EBFlex At the summer property putting boats in the water, leveling boat lifts, cleaning the lots for summer, etc. Typical cabin stuff in the most beautiful place on the planet
  • Lou_BC I've I spent the past few days in what we refer to as "the lower mainland". I see Tesla's everywhere and virtually every other brand of EV. I was in downtown Vancouver along side a Rivian R1T. A Rivian R1S came off as side street and was following it. I saw one other R1S. 18% of new vehicles in BC are EV'S. It tends to match what I saw out my windshield. I only saw 2 fullsized pickups. One was a cool '91 3/4 ton regular cab. I ran across 2 Tacoma's. Not many Jeeps. There were plenty of Porches, Mercedes, and BMW's. I saw 2 Aston Martin DBX707's. It's been fun car watching other than the stress of driving in big city urban traffic. I'd rather dodge 146,000 pound 9 axle logging trucks on one lane roads.
  • IBx1 Never got the appeal of these; it looks like there was a Soviet mandate to create a car with two doors and a roof that could be configured in different ways.