TOKYO -- Like never before, automakers are racing to slash the weight of cars to boost fuel efficiency in the face of higher gasoline prices and tougher emissions regulations.
Japan's automakers, long at the forefront of small-car design, insist that shedding weight doesn't mean compromising safety.
Carmakers acknowledge that the basic rule still applies: The heavier the car, the more secure the occupants.
"It is more difficult to maintain safety by reducing the weight," says Takuma Mizuyoshi, a spokesman for small-car specialist Suzuki Motor Corp.
But carmakers say that by employing new materials, designs and technologies, they are delivering cars that are small, lightweight and safe. While the trend has emerged only in the past several years, Japanese manufacturers, with their long history of pioneering compact cars, are leaders.
"We have accumulated our know-how by improving safety in small cars, and we are now applying that to larger vehicles," says Koichi Kamiji, senior chief engineer for automobile safety at Honda R&D Co. "So I think we have an advantage in that regard."
The days of ever-bulkier model updates are over. The new premium is on shedding weight by:
-- Employing new engineering and design architectures.
-- Using new lightweight materials, such as high-tensile steel.
-- Using advanced cabin safety technologies.
-- Shaving ounces from any component not related to safety.