Say what you want about the sport/utility vehicle being nothing more than a gas-guzzling, fear-inducing road hog that belongs in a marina because it's too big for parking spaces. You can even rename it SBV for sport/brutality vehicle.

But don't try to argue that these enormously popular people movers are the best thing that ever happened to the steel industry just because they jacked up demand for steel at a time when competing materials such as plastics and aluminum were gaining momentum.

"I say plastic is the best thing that happened to the steel industry. It kicked us in the ass and got us moving," says Darryl Martin, director of automotive applications for the American Iron and Steel Institute.

"Some might say we were complacent, but we recognized we had to do something. We had to rejuvenate steel from a ponderous beast to a progressive and aggressive type material," Mr. Martin says.

The industry responded by developing high-strength steel, tailored blanks, laser welding and hydroforming to improve efficiency, cut weight and step up the performance of steel.

Automakers are applying the innovations, not only on performance and luxury cars, but on a growing number of high-volume, low-priced vehicles as well, with even greater efficiency.

Despite these developments, the amount of steel used in a typical North American family vehicle (from small cars to light trucks) has climbed throughout the 1990s after a precipitous plunge during the 1980s as vehicles were downsized and migrated to lighter weight unibodies.

But one thing has been constant as the auto industry has evolved over the past 20 years: Steel's percentage of the curb weight of a typical U.S.-built vehicle has barely budged, from 60% in 1976 to 55% today.

American Metal Market reports that the average 1999 vehicle in North America will contain 1,821 to 1,825 lbs. (826 to 828 kg) of steel, an increase of 11 to 14 lbs. (5 to 6.4 kg) over 1998. Several new and restyled models are bigger and roomier than models they replace. Some have been beefed up for structural or safety reasons.

The top-of-the-line version of the new Ford Windstar minivan, with a fourth door, weighs 4,270 lbs. (1937.7 kg), 269 lbs. (122 kg) heavier than its predecessor, which didn't have a fourth door.

AMM also reports that because high-strength steel and tailored blanks often cost more than the grades and forms they replace, the steel industry could earn higher profits from the average '99 vehicle. This despite continued OEM pressure to cut costs.

The world's steelmakers, however, are not celebrating, especially after a 54-day strike at General Motors Corp. that will affect the bottom line for all GM suppliers.

Steelmakers know that automakers' unquenchable thirst for lighter, cheaper, faster and better creates an alluring market for alternative materials to supplant steel's position as the material of choice for automotive production.

In fact, the steel industry's UltraLight Steel Auto Body consortium has a seemingly incongruous goal: to reduce auto-makers' need for their product. Steel executives have come to realize that the best way to preserve their stronghold is to help carmakers use their material more effectively.

The 35-member consortium has spent $22 million and four years to build a body-in-white at least 25% lighter than a typical midsize car. It meets tests for crash, torsion and bending, yet it costs no more to build than typical auto body structures in its class.

Twelve prototypes have been built and are being reviewed by automakers around the world.

Now, ULSAB is being expanded to reduce weight in suspension systems and closure panels such as doors, hoods, decklids and hatchbacks. Insiders say steelmakers may collectively spend up to $60 million on the additional study. But other steel executives downplay the figure and say it's too early to predict how much money will be spent.

Pete Peterson, director of marketing-automotive for USX Corp.'s U.S. Steel Group, tells attendees at the early August University of Michigan automotive conference in Traverse City, MI, that ULSAB has taught steelmakers plenty about competition - not with each other, but with suppliers of alternative materials.

"If the forces of competing products and technologies (in our case aluminum and composites) have the possibility of dramatically reducing the size of the market pie, you are better off reducing it yourself. And doing it in such a way that the threat of further encroachment is substantially reduced or even eliminated," he says.

"Eventually, as the global automobile industry continues to expand, the global demand for steel will surpass its high water mark, and we can all enjoy the added volume."

Speaking of added volume, steel purchases by Toyota Motor Corp. and its suppliers will reportedly climb by at least 48,000 tons per year starting with MY 2001 as Toyota is expected to build a new line of SUVs at its new Princeton, IN, assembly plant.

Maybe the SUV isn't so bad after all.