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The exotic material in VW's new lightweight car? Steel

The exotic material in VW's new lightweight car? Steel

Posting in Energy

Take that, carbon fiber! Get lost, titanium! Steel's the future, as VW kicks out the equivalent of star quarterback Tom Brady from its popular, improved mileage Golf.

Steely: The new VW Golf makes use of advanced steel for lighter weight and improved mileage.

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When German car maker Volkswagen introduced its latest VW Golf in Berlin this week, it proclaimed that the car weighs less than earlier versions of the popular small family vehicle and thus achieves higher fuel efficiency, thanks in large part to a material VW is using in the construction.

So what is this exotic stuff? Is it carbon fiber? Titanium?

No! Get ready for it. It's, it's, it's ... steel! Yes, steel - the same basic stuff auto makers have used for years. Same but different, of course. Stronger, for instance.

"One major reason for the bodyshell's weight loss is the extensive use of high- and ultra-high strength steels," VW says on its website. The company has increased the percentage of high strength steel from 66 percent to 80 percent, and nearly a third of that increase comes from ultra-high strength steel, it says. It notes that VW is  "breaking the cycle of being heavier than its predecessor."

220-Pound Loss: The reduction kicks the approximate weight equivalent of Tom Brady out of the car.

The World Steel Association seized the opportunity to applaud. "Volkswagen's use of advanced steel technologies is a great example of how this transformed material can help automakers drive into the future of vehicle lightweighting (NEW VERB!) and safety," said Cees ten Broek, director of  World Steel's auto division in a press release (I've irresistibly added the boldface editorial comment).

The steel industry likes to point out that despite the sooty reputation of making the product, steel is playing a key role in improving the industrial world's environmental performance. It notes that steel emits fewer greenhouse gases during production than do alternative materials such as carbon fiber, aluminum and magnesium. It also points out that steel is easily recyclable - about 30 percent of the world's new steel comes from refurbished scrap - while claiming that carbon fiber is not.

And the industry says it is constantly improving steel's quality, strength, durability and lightness.

That's not to say that steel isn't an environmental culprit. It accounts for about 8 percent of the world's greenhouse gases. That's the sort of thing that happens when you scorch the bejeezus out of coke - a carbon intense substance - and mix it with other ingredients to make your end product. But the industry is constantly working on improving its techniques. One steel maker the U.S. is even considering using a small nuclear reactor rather than fossil fuels to power its processes.

So by how much has the Golf - known sometimes through its 4 decades as the Rabbit - trimmed down? By up to 220 pounds. About a quarter of that reduction comes from the steel. VW has also chipped away in other areas, including taking 15 pounds off the seats, and even 6 pounds off the air conditioner.

The total reduction, 220 pounds, doesn't particularly sound like a lot. It's pretty much the equivalent of removing New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady from the front seat or wherever you might put him. (As a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, I'd throw him in the back myself. I'd have used Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger for the analogy, but he's slightly heftier than the married-to-a-model Brady, whose listed weight of 224 pounds fits this story to a T).

But in the practice of building cars, every ounce counts. As VW notes, "One benefit of lowering the Golf’s weight is better fuel economy." It says that a 1.4 liter, 140 horsepower, turbocharged version of the new Golf with "cylinder de-activation" gets 49 mpg on gasoine, and that a 105-horsepower diesel version gets 62 mpg. (VW did not state mileage for the previous Golf in its press release).

VW will show the Golf at the Paris Motor Show later this month. Meanwhile, I'm going to steel myself for feedback from the carbon fiber industry.

Photos: Golf from VW. Tom Brady from Jeffrey Beall via Wikimedia.

Links to other steely SmartPlanet stories, including a turbocharged affair:

Before you write off carbon fiber, check this out:

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Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure