Uh, oh. Look out, steel's getting complacent again. After battling back against plastic body panels in the 1980s, it's starting to lose ground to sheet molding composite (SMC) and aluminum. Just look at the evidence:

The SMC Automotive Alliance (SMCAA) brags that its material is the fastest growing plastic replacing steel for automotive components and projects a 20% jump in SMC use by automakers in 1996 over '95. Ford Motor Co.'s use of SMC on cars and trucks is about 200% higher than it was just three years ago.

Aluminum use has risen 80% in the past five years, and much of the new growth is aimed at winning more body-panel applications. Just look at all the new cars and trucks coming out with SMC and aluminum body panels, such as the Chrysler Sebring convertible, the new Taurus and F150 pickups and, of course, the Plymouth Prowler.

Because both plastic and aluminum are lighter than steel, it's just a matter of time before the heaviest material is aced out altogether. Finished. Dead. Buried. Adios muchacho.

This is the kind of stuff that makes blood vessels pop in Douglas. W. Tyger's face. He's the manager of Applications Engineering at AK Steel Corp. and chairman of the communications panel of the American Iron and Steel Institute (AISI), the steel industry's trade group.

After reading numerous media accounts suggesting steel is about to be overrun by lighter-weight alternatives in automotive body panels, he did a rough analysis of market share for steel, aluminum and SMC, comparing the millions of tons of steel used for auto body panels with the millions of pounds of SMC and aluminum. The result: Steel seems to be just a hair ahead of its competitors with 99.35% of the market. Even adjusting for factors such as material density, steel still has almost 99% of the automotive body panel business, he says.

These figures perhaps explain the current lack of panic in the steel industry over gains by SMC and aluminum body panels.

Mr. Tyger doesn't want to appear too smug. Complacency certainly did get the steel industry in serious trouble in the '70s and '80s, but he points out steelmakers now are spending tens of millions on research and development projects -- just through AISI -- to make sure they are competitive. That includes developing lighter-weight, corrosion-resistant steels and lowering tooling costs.

AISI also is spending $22 million to develop a prototype steel auto body that is about 30% lighter and $150 cheaper than today's typical body-in-white. Competitors criticize the project -- called the UltraLight Steel Auto Body -- for not including closure panels, Mr. Tyger says. However, he argues that cost and quality -- not weight -- are the driving factors for the Big Three's decisions on choosing materials for exterior body panels. If they want to lower weight, they look elsewhere, such as the body-in-white, engine block, or numerous other areas.

Historically, this usually has been the case. SMC hoods and decklids were chosen for low-volume production runs because steel tooling costs were too high. And if a lightweight aluminum hood is used to trim an overweight car, it's more an act of desperation than anything else. Aluminum hoods used to appear only when a vehicle got so overweight it was in danger of drifting into a higher inertial weight class, to meet federal fuel economy standards, which would force expensive engineering changes.

As soon as engineers figured out how to get the weight out somewhere else, the aluminum hood disappeared. The reason was simple: Steel usually had a better surface finish and it was a lot cheaper.

But that's not entirely true now. The new Ford F150 aluminum hood was chosen specifically for its light weight. And it had nothing to do with making the vehicle lighter: It was customer satisfaction. Ford product designers thought a hood that was much easier to lift would make the vehicle more attractive to customers who weren't brawny cowboy types. So far, it seems to be working.

Having personally done a comparison test, I can testify the Ford definitely provides a superior hood-lifting experience. Whether or not this feature will sell enough trucks to pay for the higher cost of the aluminum is impossible to tell. But maybe the steel industry should be worried, just a little.