Figures don't lie, but liars can figure, the old saying goes. While few in the materials business accuse their competitors of outright lying, it often is very difficult - and sometimes impossible - to determine who's winning the global war over automotive materials just by looking at the numbers.

Behind the relatively stable average pounds-per-vehicle numbers for copper, for instance, are two very unstable situations: one is the battle between copper and aluminum for new radiator applications - which copper is losing - and the other is the extraordinary increase in the amount of electrical wiring in vehicles. That's helping copper hang onto its share of pounds of material in the average vehicle.

The same is true for plastics, which appears to be stuck on a plateau, but actually hides some swiftly growing niches and represents a huge battle between different types of plastics over the same turf.

If you believe all the biased predictions of the various materials marketers, we'll all soon be driving 10,000-lb. (4,500-kg) cars. Obviously, few think their materials will be easy prey for competitors, but all of their optimistic forecasts can't possibly come true.

In the materials game, however, sometimes nobody has to lose. When car sales go up, every materials producer wins with the increased production volume. And when older models are replaced by new ones that are longer, wider and heavier, as as happened during the past five years or so, nearly everybody wins again. That means bigger, heavier parts that use more plastic, glass, steel and aluminum.

The new Ford Taurus/Sable, for example, weighs some 200 lbs. (91 kg) more than its predecessor, continuing a trend among many new models. While everyone tsk-tsks about it putting on weight, it's important to note that its direct competitor, the 4-door Chevy Lumina, showed up last model year 192 lbs. (87 kg) heavier, too.

And even with relatively reliable numbers, the importance of some materials goes far beyond its weight per car. A case in point is paint on a car. It weighs only a couple of pounds, but it can make all the difference in the world. In the following pages, Ward's Auto World gives you the story behind the numbers in the highly complex automotive materials marketplace as the industry moves into the '96 model year.