More Than Beer Cans On Wheels

ON THE SURFACE, IT'S HARD TO find two cars more different than the Audi A8 and the Plymouth Prowler. The Audi, which arrived in U.S. showrooms last fall, is a refined German touring sedan meant for folks who don't want to flaunt their $65,000 piece of machinery. Contrast that with the look-at-me Prowler, a $39,000, retro-styled, purple hot rod that will hit drag strips this summer. But beneath the two cars' opposing exteriors there's a revolutionary similarity. While most mass- produced automobiles ride on a skeleton made of steel, the new Audi and Plymouth models have innards made of space-age aluminum, a metal most people associate with wrapping sandwiches. If you see the newfangled wheels drive by, take a good look: you may be catching a first glimpse of the cars of tomorrow.

Aluminum versus steel? Don't let your eyes glaze over just yet. While it sounds like an abstruse engineering debate, the outcome of this Battle of the Metals will have an impact on everyone who puts a key into an ignition. For years researchers predicted that aluminum would replace steel in cars, transforming lumbering gas guzzlers into sprightly, fuel-efficient vehicles. Carmakers have toyed with the metal, putting it to use in parts like the hood of the Ford Taurus. But the costs and technical hurdles of building an all-aluminum car have been too high. Now a new crop of aluminum cars is hitting the streets, and talk of a metallic revolution is resurfacing. Though the new aluminum-mobiles make up just a tiny sliver of today's car market, their creators dream of putting the lessons they're learning to use on high-volume lines. Says Chrysler materials engineer Saad Abouzahr, ""The Prowler is really a lab on wheels for us.''

Much to learn: The trend troubles steel barons, who are launching a counteroffensive, as well as body-shop owners, who aren't fans of the new metal. And carmakers still have much to learn. Aluminum costs four times as much as steel, and it's difficult to weld and shape into car parts. The factories that build the Prowler and the A8 turn out just a few vehicles an hour, versus the car-a-minute rate of a typical plant. But experts say aluminum's price will come down, and automakers are perfecting ways to use it. The big attraction is its light weight; that's the reason aluminum is the metal of choice for jets and space shuttles. A car's weight is crucial: for every 100 pounds designers chop from a vehicle, it gains roughly one extra mile per gallon. Today's average family car weighs in at 3,248 pounds, 55 percent of it steel. By replacing steel with aluminum, plastics and magnesium, General Motors pared its electric vehicle, the EV1, to a bare-bones 2,900 pounds; the aluminum Audi is 386 pounds lighter than a steel-framed BMW. Greenies aren't the only ones who will love the lighter cars - they're a treat for amateur Andrettis. Says Car & Driver editor Csaba Csere, ""They feel faster and more agile.''

It all sounds wonderful - until you wrap your aluminum car around a telephone pole. Safety isn't the problem: even though it seems as if an aluminum car would crush as easily as a soda can, carmakers have turned the metal into frames that are surprisingly strong. ""The Audi performs as well in a high-speed crash as any car I've seen,'' says Brian O'Neill of the Insurance Institute on Highway Safety. Getting the car back to health is the problem. Not only are aluminum parts more expensive - a replacement door for an aluminum Acura NSX goes for $1,600, compared with $480 for the Acura Legend's steel door - but few body shops are equipped to deal with the new metal. Wreck an Audi A8, and it gets towed to one of just 25 body shops in the country that can fix it. (Audi says that's not a problem because it pays to transport the car and gives owners a loaner A8.) At Exclusive Body Shop in Van Nuys, Calif., technicians charge $50 an hour to work on aluminum cars, up from their normal $32-an-hour rate. ""Aluminum is much more difficult to work with,'' says production manager Craig Fernandez. ""If you overheat it, it drops into little beads in front of you.''

Talk like that has the insurance industry raising yellow flags. Chrysler and Audi say their aluminum cars cost the same to insure as steel-framed competitors, though NEWSWEEK was quoted a rate 19 percent higher on the Audi than on a comparable BMW. To calm nervous insurance execs, last year Audi flew a group to Germany to watch it build and crash-test an A8. State Farm even sent an employee through a two-week aluminum-repair course. ""We were impressed,'' says State Farm research VP Wayne Sorenson, who thinks the rigid aluminum frames will suffer less damage than traditional cars in crashes. But he's not yet a true believer. ""We'll be watching costs,'' he says. ""It's possible . . . we could see an increase in premiums.''

If they do, expect the steel industry to trumpet the news. Big Steel is looking for any advantage it can find to keep aluminum from taking over the car business the way it did the market for beverage cans. A steel-industry consortium is spending $22 million to design ultralight-steel car bodies to convince automakers that the heavier metal should remain their material of choice. At an iron-and-steel convention in Cleveland last week, execs watched TV spots from the industry's just-launched $100 million ad campaign. In one ad a towheaded toddler sits in a speeding vehicle as the narrator tells how the steel side-impact beams will protect him in a crash. In another spot a diver swims safely inside a steel-barred shark cage as Jaws attacks. The none-too-subtle message: steel's strength equals safety. They may be on to something. At Pray Audi in Stamford, Conn., salesmen reassure nervous buyers that the aluminum A8 is safe. ""When people think of aluminum, they think of a beer can,'' says sales manager Steven Haas. ""They don't think of an airplane.''

Fuel efficiency: Whether or not you can stick a magnet to your next car may have as much to do with what happens inside the Beltway as in the rust belt. With gas selling for less than bottled water, few consumers are clamoring for lighter vehicles. But with prodding from the government, the carmakers haven't given up the quest for fuel efficiency. The Big Three are busy designing a family car that will get 80 miles per gallon by 2003. It's unclear whether the government might actually mandate fuel-economy levels that high; reaching them would probably require widespread use of aluminum. Says Ford advanced-vehicles manager Bill Stuef, ""Steel won't get you there, even with the most clever techniques.'' Even if government mandates force Detroit to learn to love the high-tech metal, the transformation won't take place overnight. Converting all existing car lines to aluminum could take 20 years or more. In the meantime, tip your hat to the folks lining up to buy Prowlers, NSXs, A8s and EV1s. Someone has to be the guinea pig.

Choosing an aluminum car like the Audi over a steel BMW will get you a set of wheels that's a little lighter and a little quicker. But repair shops are hard to find.

Audi A8 4.2 BMW 740iL Price* $65,000 $65,590 Weight 3,902 lb. 4,288 lb. 0-60 time 6.9 seconds 7.0 seconds Fuel efficiency 17/25 mpg 17/24 mpg Body shops 25 55,000 Annual insurance $2,174 $1,824 *Includes destination charges