Producing lighter-weight, lower-cost, less-polluting vehicles is a never-ending task, but the pressure on automotive engineers now is growing more intense thanks to mounting pressure to improve fuel economy and curb emissions. And it is a task in which materials play an increasingly important role.

Carbon fiber composites often are mentioned as a means of dramatically improving fuel economy. The strongest and lightest of all alternative materials, automakers have been experimenting with them since the 1970s. Ford Motor Co. even built an entire car out of carbon fiber composites in 1977. In the 1990s, General Motors Corp. developed a carbon-fiber concept car called the Ultralite that got 100 mpg.

Numerous other carbon fiber components, such as prop shafts, have been periodically introduced on production vehicles in an effort to lower vehicle weight. But the problem then — as it is now — is cost.

Now the '02 Aston Martin Vanquish debuts with more fascinating materials technology, but its stratospheric price tag underscores the fact that most of its innovation still isn't ready for mainstream production cars.

Because materials are such a crucial element of the automotive industry, Ward's AutoWorld devotes special coverage to this topic every September, analyzing how materials use is shaping the upcoming model year — and future model years.

Which materials will win and lose always is the subject of hot debate. In the following pages, WAW gives you the behind-the-scenes story on what's happening in the materials marketplace for the '02 model year and beyond.