Imagine if the U.S. failed to meet the challenge put forth by President Kennedy in 1961 of putting a man on the moon before the end of the decade and returning him safely.

That's something akin to what the auto industry is dealing with after a recently released federal review of the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles (PNGV) concluded the program would not reach its goal of an 80 mpg car by 2004. President Clinton made the moon landing comparison when PNGV was launched in 1993, turning the eyes of engineers and designers away from steel and to aluminum and other alternative materials with lightweight characteristics.

But the failure to meet PNGV's goal isn't causing the auto industry to lose confidence in aluminum's automotive future. A North American vehicle on average will feature 268 lbs. in 2002, according to American Metal Market, up some 5% from year-ago's 255 lbs. average.

The key applications for 2002, like past years, are engine-related. But aluminum is winning more sourcing decisions for suspensions, bumpers and other components. And some say aluminum's considerable progress has been made with too much focus being placed on the metal's weight-saving capabilities. “This role has been way too narrow,” explains Rick Milner, a vice president of Alcoa Inc. and president of its automotive operations. “It has helped our products penetrate the market, but there is so much more that aluminum can do besides providing weight tradeoffs, and we want to accomplish the things that are possible for our metal — the things that make sense.”

Aluminum can provide improvements in performance, safety, interior roominess, fuel economy, operating ease, overall operating costs and environmental friendliness, Mr. Milner claims, adding that aluminum must “expand the role it plays in the automotive industry by delivering our full design, engineering and product potential to provide automakers with new opportunities to differentiate their products.”

Alcoa must work closer with automakers in order to resolve issues that may be holding back the material's expansion, says Mr. Milner. “We want to work with OEMs to create opportunities and solve problems that will help them design and manufacture superior vehicles,” he says, as well as provide “more design solutions, deeper technical expertise and broader product offerings than our competitors.”

Alcoa has developed a number of subsystem concepts — including sliding side doors for vans, tailgates for pickup trucks and liftgates for sport/utility vehicles (SUVs) — that it says can help sell vehicles. Some of the concepts combine aluminum with others materials, such as steel and magnesium and plastics. While the prototype parts aren't in production, there's still plenty to talk about for 2002 and beyond that will be on the streets. General Motors Corp.'s Cadillac XLR roadster due in 2003 is expected to have an aluminum body. BMW AG reportedly will use aluminum extensively in the front end structures of its next-generation, steel-bodied 5-series due in the 2003-'04 timeframe. Rolls Royce Motor Cars Ltd. will use an aluminum V-12 engine and space frame for its new luxury sedans expected in 2003, AMM reports.

Besides the first full year of production for GM's 4.2L 6-cyl. inline powerplant used in Chevy TrailBlazer/GMC Envoy/Olds Bravada midsize SUVs, the automaker also reportedly will be rolling out an all-aluminum 5.3L V-8, an inline 5-cyl and inline 4-cyl. Ford and Toyota Motor Corp. also are expected to begin production of aluminum I-4s in 2002. DaimlerChrysler Corp.'s new 3.7L V-6 is available in the all-new Jeep Liberty compact SUV. The powerplant has aluminum heads, alternator case, water pump and an assortment of brackets. Nissan Motor Co. Ltd.'s Altima becomes the first high-volume product made by a transplant to have an aluminum hood and decklid, says AMM.

Other aluminum applications of note for 2002 from AMM and other industry reports:

  • Impact bars in the rear bumpers of the '02 Cadillac Seville.

  • Wheels on the Dodge Ram and Ford Thunderbird. The T-Bird also features aluminum suspension control arms and power steering components.

  • The Cadillac CTS features an aluminum-intensive 4-wheel independent suspension.

  • Control arms, axle housings and the drive shaft in the Versatrak models of the Buick Rendezvous cross/utility vehicle are aluminum.

  • Chevy Corvette has aluminum automatic transmission cooler cases, and the ZO6 version features aluminum front stabilizer bar links.