'Steel is for cars, aluminum is for airplanes and plastic is for toys.' Francois Castaing, the retired chief engineer of the former Chrysler Corp., said this about five years ago in a successful effort to rile up a roomful of suppliers. A group of Alcan engineers hope to make Castaing eat his words. Until now, the only aluminum automobiles were high-priced sports cars - such as the Plymouth Prowler or Honda S2000 - or ultra-light test vehicles.
The new Audi A2 has changed all of that. The A2, which features aluminum body panels hung on an aluminum space frame, matches an affordable price with high production volume. Audi expects to produce 60,000 units this year, which would be considerably more than previous aluminum vehicles.
Audi's supplier is Alcan Aluminum Ltd., the world's second-largest producer of sheet aluminum. The Canadian company hopes to pass rival Alcoa on the strength of a proposed merger with a Swiss firm, plus new business with the automakers. Alcan has signed long-term contracts with General Motors and Ford Motor Co. and has agreed to help them design aluminum vehicles.
Roland Harings, general manager of Alcan Automotive Europe, coyly hints that GM and Jaguar plan to design such vehicles within the next five years. And that is all he will say about it. However, industry sources speculate that the next all-aluminum car to debut will be a Jaguar, most likely the next-generation XJ series. With a rumored production target of 30,000 units - plus a high-performance luxury image - the XJ series would seem to be a prime candidate for an aluminum skin. Ford also has toyed with proposals to produce a mass-market aluminum car in Dearborn, Michigan. However, that project has been stymied by the high cost of aluminum.
COST IS A PROBLEM
Indeed, cost is the major reason why more automakers do not switch to aluminum body panels. According to Alcan, aluminum sheet metal costs 13.3 deutsch marks in Germany, or $6.70 per square meter. By contrast, steel costs $3.90 per square meter. Moreover, aluminum is more difficult to weld than steel. The aluminum Audi A8, for example, is welded almost entirely by hand. However, Audi has figured out how to use robots for most of the A2's welds. In fact, Harings claims the A2's space frame is no more expensive than steel, up to a production run of 60,000 units. For larger volumes, steel still prevails.
For the foreseeable future, however, most automakers will restrict their use of aluminum sheet to deck lids and hoods. Instead, aluminum will be the metal of choice for components such as engine blocks, cylinder heads, wheels and suspension components. This part-by-part conversion to aluminum should be enough to guarantee steady growth for suppliers. Alcan estimates that the average European car will carry 80 kilograms of aluminum by 2005, up from 53 kilograms today.
What does the future hold? Alcan is strengthening its position in the marketplace with a two-pronged strategy. First, the supplier has signed 10-year deals with both GM and Ford to guarantee them a steady supply of the metal. Next, Alcan is trying to grow by merging with other aluminum manufacturers. Alcan hopes to complete a proposed $4.1 billion merger with Switzerland's Algroup, a deal that would leave Alcan owning a 62-percent equity share.
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In the meantime, Alcan hopes to use the Audi A2 as a rolling advertisement for aluminum. Because of its aluminum skin, the car weighs only 895 kilograms, about 150 kilograms less than a similar steel-bodied car would weigh. Equipped with a 1.2-liter turbodiesel, the car - which is roughly the size of the VW Polo - needs only 3 liters of fuel per 100 kilometers.
Will the world's roads soon be flooded with aluminum cars? Probably not. Aluminum's light weight will never entirely cancel out its high cost. In the meantime, however, keep your eye on Audi A2 sales. The vehicle could be the aluminum industry's rolling showcase.
Oh, and what kind of all-aluminum vehicle might General Motors produce? Aside from a possible low-volume production version of the fuel-efficient Precept show car, we do not have a clue. If you hear anything, let us know.
You can e-mail Editor David Sedgwick at [email protected]
You can e-mail International Editor Chris Wright at [email protected]