By on April 28, 2010

When I was a kid copywriter on the Volkswagen account, grumpy but thorough VW engineers drummed one tenet of green into me: You don’t save gas with secret carburetors which the oil companies hide. You save by shedding weight. The less weight to push around, the less energy is needed to do the pushing. From the First Law of Thermodynamics to Einstein, all will agree. Like we agree on the need for a balanced diet. Then we go to the next Wendy’s, and order a triple Whopper. Despite the wisdom, cars tend to gain heft over the years like an erstwhile skinny Italian bella ragazza after the age of 30.

With tougher environmental regulations spreading across the globe, and CO2 mutating into a climate-ogre from something that used to provide the fizz in a soda, automakers remember the old engineering rule: Less weight, less gas, less crud.

The challenge is to build cars light and safe at the same time. It can be done. But it’s tricky. Building cars that dissipate energy during a crash is one part. Using lightweight, but strong materials is another.

“The ability of automakers to incorporate lightweight materials into their vehicles will go a long way toward determining their global competitiveness,” The Nikkei [sub] says.

Japan’s Toray entered a joint venture with Daimler to develop carbon fiber parts.

Toyota plans to introduce several new materials for its Lexus LFA sports car, slated to be ready to buy by the end of the year. Small windows will be from polycarbonate, 30 percent lighter than glass. The LFA will use carbon fiber inside and out.

Nissan has adopted aluminum alloys for the doors and roofs of its sports cars.

BMW AG joined up with SGL Automotive Carbon Fibers to produce carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic in the U.S.

Volkswagen is increasingly using aluminum for its luxury brands, such as Audi and Porsche.

However, shedding that heft comes at a hefty price. Literally. The new lightweight materials don’t come cheap. Nobody knows that better than Volkswagen. More than 10 years ago, in 1999, they launched the Lupo 3L, which had its name from the fact that it used only 3 liters of gas for 100 km. Which comes out to 78.4 mpg. (U.S. gallons, not the imperial stuff.) The car used light-weight aluminum and magnesium alloys and weighed-in at only 1,830 lb. Market research showed that the car would fly off the lot. Then it just stood there. It did not move. It was too expensive. For the same price, people got a bigger car with more oomph. The Lupo 3L was quickly buried. Critics said it was a green washing experiment. It wasn’t. They honestly meant it. But they overlooked another immutable law in the auto business: People love to save the planet when asked by a researcher. People love to get the best bang for the buck when it comes to buying.

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32 Comments on “Let There Be Light. Weight...”

  • avatar

    Original Smart car suffered a similar fate as Lupo:
    – generous interior space for two
    – competitive crash performance & standard modern ABS/ESP/etc. systems;
    – high-strength steel body shell;
    – extruded Alu space-frame door and rear-tailgate structures
    (both clad in cheaper-than-Alu, non-corroding, non-dentable plastic body panels);
    but still nowhere close to the Lupo 3L in economy,
    but also seen by the market as too expensive or not offering a big enough value that it never met its 220k pc/yr sales target, and only sold about 1/2 of that in its best year; and never made any money.

    Lupo 3L:
    – In addition to the Alu- & Mg-design, the car also used Titanium (very very expensive) in the (IIRC) coil springs (perhaps was a show-car feature only, but I think they made it into production);
    – At the time, we understood this to be a prestige/demonstrator project instigated by Hr. Prof.-Dr.(h) Spaltmass, and a money loser for each one sold.

    • 0 avatar

      As the one who literally wrote the book on the Lupo 3L (in a titanium slipcover…) I can tell you:

      – Yes, titanium was in the mix, not much, but it was there
      – They honestly wanted to sell the car
      – It was expensive with all that space-age stuff
      – Customers said they would buy it, money doesn’t matter, the planet is more important
      – Customers lied

      From the transit lounge in Narita, The BS

    • 0 avatar
      Dr Strangelove

      Does anyone know how the current BlueMotion models are selling? They seem to be a bit less ambitious and more affordable.

    • 0 avatar

      – Customers said they would buy it, money doesn’t matter, the planet is more important
      – Customers lied


    • 0 avatar

      Thank you, Bertel. Great piece and doubly-quoted for truth: buyers (er, potential buyers) are liars. Your piece goes a long way to reinforcing my belief that the last thing a company should do is read user forums (*cough* thecarlounge/vwvortex *cough*) for market research.

      Forums are to car buying as drinking is to beer muscles.

    • 0 avatar

      Friend of mine bought one. I loved that thing, and he got it barebones without the AC. Don’t remember if it came with a radio – I don’t think it did.

      When he took it in for service, the dealer would give him a Phaeton loaner.

  • avatar

    Wendy’s is selling you counterfeit Whopper’s. The Burger King won’t be too pleased ;)

  • avatar

    “Despite the wisdom, cars tend to gain heft over the years like an erstwhile skinny Italian bella ragazza after the age of 30.”

    I think it’s more like after 40 now, since they only become “bella donna” at the age of 30. Or maybe I’m just getting older…

  • avatar

    If it’s cheap enough, they’ll buy it… but only when they’re desperate to save money. When gas gets cheap again… or when they’ve adjusted to the new price regime, goodbye thrift, hellllooooooo big car.

    Just look at the rise and fall (well… dip) of the Honda Fit in the USA. Or the sudden resurgence in popularity of the Metro.

  • avatar

    Not only are these materials initially expensive, but more expensive to replace. Minor damage to a steel fender that can be pounded out, filled, and painted becomes total replacement when talking about fiberglass or carbon composites. Anyone with a fiberglass-bodied Corvette – feel free to confirm or deny whether this is true. Plus, even if CF damage can be repaired, the skill sets required are totally different.

  • avatar

    Price and performance is more important than being green for me. I’ve said before that I would like to have a 2000lb 200hp car for a daily driver. The only thing that fits so far (that I could find) is the Lotus Elise or Exige. Way out of my price range for a daily driver. Therefore, I never even sat in one to see if it would make a decent fun commuter car. I will not consider a Smart (I get employee pricing)till the performance and fuel economy comes up to my expectations. If it was rated at 33mpg but had 200hp I would be delighted even if it was $20k. But a 3 pot with less than 100hp I wouldn’t take for $10k. The 2012 Mini Coupe could be interesting for what I want. Waiting to see that one.

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    Don’t know about the Lupo – must have been a Euro-only phenomenon. It seems to me that since car buyers (US car buyers, at least) buy on size, the trick is to use exotic materials, etc. to reduce the weight, but keep the size the same. The trend seems to be very much in the other direction. For example, somewhere I read a review of the current Taurus SHO, which mentioned that this version weighed over 1000 lbs. more than the “original” from the late 1980s-early 1990s. Wow! No wonder it takes about 360 hp to slightly exceed the performance of the original version, which “made do” with 220 hp. I’m sure the new version is stiffer than the old one, but still! I owned a 1992, and it was fully loaded with all of the power accessories that supposedly add weight. Another example, was my dad’s 1991 Volvo 740, which I recently sold to a shop that parted it out. That car, hardly a piece of tin, weighed, IIRC, 3400 lbs. and carried 4 passengers very comfortably and 5 satisfactorily.

    Is this all due to more stringent crash standards?

    It also goes without saying that a lighter car is always a more fun car to drive, even if the heavier car has the same power to weight ratio and the same g-force cornering ability. Just take a spin in a vintage Alfa-Romeo, which weighed in at less than 2000 lbs.

    • 0 avatar

      +1 on the Alfa comment. I had a ’74 Fiat X 1/9, and although it only had about 75 hp, it was the most fun you could have in 4 wheels. I think it weighed in at about 1500 lbs. with a full tank of gas. It’s also the only car I ever faded the brakes (4-wheel disc) in coming down a mountain road from the Blue Ridge Parkway to Marion, NC. It is NC 80, and you ever get a chance to drive it, you should!!!! It’s also called Buck Creek Road, and if you use the Google map function to find it, you’ll see what a winding road it is.

    • 0 avatar

      Except that the new SHO is substantially bigger than the previous one. And it gets better city mileage and runs on regular. So much for the good old days.

      People love to tell us how the Accord has gained weight too, but I would consider the market for a 2010 full sized? totally different than for a 1980 sub-compact Accord. They are only the same car in name.

      And yes, I too wish that cars were lighter. My ’78 Rabbit blah, blah, blah – but compared to anything build today would be considered a piece of shit.

    • 0 avatar
      DC Bruce


      Dug up some comparisons with my ’92. The 2010 Taurus has the same front leg room as the 92 and an inch more headroom, and 2 cu. ft. more trunk space. Sorry, I couldn’t find rear seat dimensions for the ’92. The ’10 is ten inches longer and five inches wider (I wonder where that space went.) By the EPA numbers, the ’10 gets 1 mpg better combined mileage. I kind of wonder about that, because EPA says the 92 SHO gets 24 mpg highway and I would regularly get 26 between DC and my vacation home in the highest part of W. Virginia.

      As a practical matter, both cars are 5-passenger cars, and the 92 was plenty large enough for me (at 6’4″) three other adults . . . and 4400 lbs. for a 5-passenger vehicle is a lot of weight.

  • avatar

    A big problem, oft-overlooked, with exotic and not so exotic lightweight materials is that they do not absorb energy as wll as steel. It is the energy absorbed by bending and tearing the steel parts of the car that protect the occupants. I’ve barrier tested lots of cars with lightweight front end components, and none of them provided the enregy absorbtion for good crash results.


  • avatar
    John Horner

    Makers of expensive, lighter weight materials like Alcoa have been pushing their mantra for many decades. For the most part, steel has kept pace and continues to relegate other metals, composites and advanced polymers to relatively minor roles.

    Oft times, the “new” materials turn out to be a long term headache for owners. Our 1986 Taurus used a very lightweight polymer master cylinder … which crapped out at 60k miles, at which time I replaced it with a cast iron aftermarket unit. Polycarbonate windows? No thanks, the oh so popular polycarbonate headlight assemblies all yellow and scratch far too quickly. I would give anything to go back to real glass headlamps on new vehicles!

    The PR departments of materials companies will keep beating their same drum, but I doubt they are going to displace steel as the primary component of automobiles. Besides, steel is the most recycled commodity on the planet excepting perhaps the lead in automotive batteries. How many plastic bumpers do you think end up getting melted down and turned into new plastic bumpers? What is the recycling process for carbon fiber composites, fiberglass or composites of any kind?


  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    And what about recycling CF, fiberglass, and other exotic materials? That counts in the overall picture too.

    • 0 avatar

      I was once a huge fan of Penn and Teller.
      One of their cable show’s BS was on recycling.
      They showed how it was extremely more damaging to the planet than normal waste.
      In fact, the entire program turned out, admittedly by it’s early founders, to be a jobs program more than anything else.
      Aluminum cans is by far the only recycling program that actually works.

    • 0 avatar
      John Horner

      The steel and aluminum used to make automobiles is recycled at a far higher rate than are aluminum soda cans. Many modern steel mills ONLY use scrap steel as their primary input. Learn about steel “mini-mills” sometime.

      Penn and Teller are hardly the best analytic resource.

    • 0 avatar

      I did not mean to imply I was arguing against you, I was trying to point out a more general error in recycling altogether.
      I would hope that these monstrous truckloads of used and damaged cars are being recycled.
      I am in fact responsible for a great many of these used junks.
      Industrial recycling is certaily more succesful, and very likely because its self driven, not government forced.
      But just as a side note, this recycling argument in cars goes far way beyond the steel and metals.
      Seating and plastics are so green today, when in reality, they are more damaging.
      And I don’t use Penn and Teller for data, but it did entice me to look deeper into the entire program and have become a nonbeliever in much of it.

  • avatar

    Excellent article, Bertel. This is why my 2400-lb 05 xB gets 31 mpg city, while the bloated 08+ xB gets only 22 mpg city. Of course, the newer model has a bigger engine and 800 lbs more weight.

    The bloat issue also has fueled the perceived need for hybrids. If mfrs and consumers would only go for lighter cars, there would be little ‘need’ to go for the more expensive, complex hybrid option.

    • 0 avatar

      Keep in mind that reducing mass is expensive and complex, too: materials become more expensive, engineering and design is harder, production subject to tighter tolerances, parts more costly.

      Then you get into issues of safety and owner experience: most light cars are dismissed, even by enthusiasts, as “cheap” or “tinny”. Consider how many people place (unwarranted) faith in the sound the door makes when they slam it.

      I’m sure that, if reduced mass was low-hanging fruit we think it is, that most manufacturers would do it.

  • avatar

    Ever since Henry Ford drove to a press conference to tout his new Ford composed of soy beans, to soy bean license plates during WWII, Americans have been told that steel will be replaced within automobiles. It has been 70 years of promises.

    Steel works because of cost and it’s inherent flexibilities. It is recyclable, non-porous, non-edible, doesn’t desolve in the rain, is easy to live with, and cheaper when considering long term costs.

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    A lot can be done as was discussed in yesterday’s:

    I would urge you to download and read the study.

  • avatar

    The weight gain of cars in the last 20 years has been a bane, and it was probably greatly accelerated by the dominance of huge BOF SUVs. Once these behemoths came to be common sights on the road, your late 80s Accord came to seem puny and none too safe in a collision. Plus the annoyance of not being able to see over or around the SUV in front of you — so passenger sedans began to get TALLER, as well as heavier, in a kind of evolutionary arms race. And height means even more weight.

    And since vacuous soccer moms juggling their cell phones while applying lipstick didn’t feel “safe” in anything smaller than a full-sized SUV, the demand for wagon versions of sedans began to dry up as well (which suited the manufacturers just fine: a wagon version of a Camry or Accord might cost a grand or two more than the sedan, while conning the customer into an SUV would nick him for 10 or 15 grand extra).

    Now we’re stuck with leviathans in most price categories. And since the consumer is unlikely to accept dimensional downsizing for a number of complicated reasons (consciously they will cite safety; but their id will be resisting the supposed reduction in socio-economic status that accompanies driving a smaller car), the only way to make the car lighter is to use exotic and expensive materials, thus ratcheting the price in every vehicle category up a notch.

  • avatar

    Mr. Schmitt, you simply don’t understand. The Lupo 3L was a bad idea, but for a completely different reason than you seem to think.

    Let me start with the obvious example: the Prius. The Prius has sold very well. Not initially, but in the second and third generations. Why? Efficiency is only a bit of the puzzle. The Prius is basically a (smallish) midsize car with a huge amount of cargo space. This is important – it’s big enough on the inside that people do not feel as though they are in a “penalty box”. It’s competitor within the brand is not the Corolla, but the Camry. This is foundation of it’s success – the original Prius was more of a small car and less successful. The mass of people who buy a very small car buy it because it’s their only option, and when they have a choice will upgrade to a more comfortable car over an efficient uncomfortable one. However, given the choice of an efficient comfortable car and a regular comfortable car, they may choose the efficient one.

    Secondly, the Prius was a different vehicle. Having a Prius instantly projects your “cred”. Having a Lupo? I don’t think so. Not even a space age, ultra light, brilliant Lupo. I don’t think people consciously realize how important this is, which is why in focus groups you have people say, “I would drive a greener vehicle”, but not buy things like Honda Civic Hybrids the way they buy Priuses.

    Basically, VW built a space age, ultra light, brilliant, green, efficient, expensive LUPO and thought people would buy it? Were they on crack? People weren’t lying about driving a green car. They were lying about driving a green penalty box. No movie star will EVER get out of a Lupo 3L. The Prius, on the other hand…

    What I am saying is that the “green car” can be a bit more expensive (the Prius is more expensive than the cheapest Camry), but it must be comfortable, it must be distinct, and it must have efficiency to brag about. The Lupo 3L meets ONE of those criteria.

  • avatar

    +1 for Adamatari. Making an already economical car more economical might expand its appeal, but won’t shake up the marketplace much.

    The Prius isn’t a very big car, by the way, but it’s big enough and distinctive enough to hit its audience targets. GM definitely was thinking this way when it gave the Volt styling different from the Cruze.

    Just like cars here, European cars have gotten bigger over time as well. Crowded cities and heavily taxed fuel will always keep them in smaller cars, but when you can get the same fuel economy out of a Mondeo you could out of a 20-year-old Fiesta, you start thinking Mondeo. Better gas and way better diesel engines make this possible.

  • avatar

    GM is the worst offender in the product restyles. The new LaCrosse is a perfect example. 500 Lbs heavier than the outgoing model with a smaller trunk, worse mileage and around town performance on base models and more confining front seat width. The previous model was basically just as quiet and refined so not much of the huge weight gain went into sound deadening materials. The new one gets one more star for safety so that was one area that did improve but I feel that a 100 LB gain would have been sufficient.

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