Cars are getting increasingly larger. That’s why they need to become lighter—makes sense? 4 minutes spent reading

Cars are getting increasingly larger. That’s why they need to become lighter—makes sense?

Timo Völker
Timo Völker is head of the motorsports section at "Die Presse", a daily newspaper in Austria.

“Less is more” describes one of tomorrow’s hottest topics in automobile manufacturing. We’re going to meet an old friend on this trip. Timo Völker takes a look at the trend towards lightweight construction.

It’s not something you can really miss if you are looking at the roads: our cars are getting increasingly larger. It’s not just an impression, it’s backed up by figures: the new VW Polo is 30 cm longer than the first Golf. In turn, the current Golf is 55 cm longer than the first Passat. And today’s Passat is longer than a 5-series BMW from the 1990s. And so it continues. Everything’s growing. That’s got a lot to do with comfort and safety, but also with affluence and increasing demands. Technology is keeping up and ensuring that vehicle weights don’t get completely out of control, because more weight means more fuel consumption. And that’s something we certainly don’t need in the future.


SUV BrueckeHowever, this trend is escalating. For there’s another unmistakable development which is driving the increase in vehicle sizes even more strongly than evolutionary forces (see above) have done so far: the love of huge vehicles. In three letters: S.U.V.

Fine, nothing new there. But for anyone who thinks this phenomenon will soon be passé, current studies indicate that SUVs are going to be around for a very long time. It’s almost as if their time has truly arrived. And pretty well worldwide.

After their slacker, grunge, bobo, and hipster phases (no claims to completeness), the USA’s millennials (those born between 1980 and 2000) have discovered a more stable lifestyle: the joys of family. Not in the form of Mum and Dad’s fridge, but with kids of their own. And with their own house in the suburbs, where there’s plenty of space to park an attractive vehicle out front—an SUV, what else? Analysts are predicting a huge growth in vehicle sales, particularly for full size vehicles—because it’s always nice having something bigger than the one the parents had.

Larger sizes coming to Europe

From the USA straight to Austria, which represents the market trend in Europe: at the moment SUV sales are in second place behind those of compact cars (Source: Statistik Austria), but they are growing at a much greater rate. Put another way, only SUVs sales are truly growing; all other vehicle formats are either stagnating in percentage terms or declining. And if you look at the IAA, you’ll see manufacturers have plenty of ideas on what can be done with raised vehicles in the near future.

Lightweight construction is the trump card

And that’s where they have a problem. A problem with two letters and one number: CO2. Although SUVs are available in almost all sizes and weight categories, their overall shape— elevated roofs (and therefore a larger front surface) and bigger wheels (an important part of SUV chic)—doesn’t make for lower levels of fuel consumption. That’s why they need to focus on weight. When it comes to driving resistance, apart from aerodynamics, weight is the decisive factor. Lightweight construction is the trump card. And how do you achieve that?

Exotic materials? Magnesium, titanium. Sounds great—if you’re talking about super sports cars where cost is a secondary consideration.

Carbon fiber? Again, not a candidate for volume production. BMW has already tried that. Following the i3 and the i8 with their carbon fiber chassis, a range of conventional electric vehicles (based on the X3 and 3-series) are now coming onto the market: there’s no other way for the manufacturer to generate any margins in the volume business. Ferrari, Lamborghini (both in limited editions), McLaren—automobile manufacturers serious about carbon don’t sell more than a couple of thousand cars a year.

Aluminum? Can do a lot, no question about it. But it’s expensive. Added to which, it doesn’t have entirely clean hands when it comes to the overall CO2 balance, and that will be a hot topic in the future. If you look at the Jaguar/Land Rover group, who see themselves as pioneers of aluminum construction, you’ll see aluminum in the larger models. But in the smaller platforms on which all the volume models are based: all steel, no aluminum. Even the aluminum architects can’t manage without high-strength steels in sensitive spots.

Steel rediscovers itself

And so you could say we are meeting an old friend again. It’s just that you wouldn’t recognize steel any more if you hadn’t seen it for a long time. Just because the material has been tried and tested doesn’t mean it can’t continue to reinvent itself. voestalpine has been throwing open completely new doors with its new press-hardened steels. Their properties make high-strength, lightweight construction possible, and using a method which makes them affordable in volume production. And it’s volume production that gets things on the rails. They are also made from steel, by the way, but that’s a different story!

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Timo Völker