You thought the Plymouth Prowler was all aluminum, right? WRONG! Clearly miffed that aluminum producers were getting all the glory for supplying Prowler body materials, the SMC Automotive Alliance, a trade group representing sheet molding composite (SMC) molders and suppliers, fired off a press release during SAE pointing out the car has seven large body panels made of SMC, comprising 30% of the car's exterior panels.

Saad Abouzahr, materials executive for the Prowler program, is quoted in the release as saying "The idea was to make an all-aluminum car. What we found is that there are reasons to use other materials, like SMC. The front and rear quarter panels, front fenders and rear valance panel are made of SMC. These panels are large, complex components that would have required multi-piece assemblies in steel or aluminum. SMC allowed us to accomplish the seamless, flowing lines we were looking for."

Mr. Abouzahr went on to say that "There was no other way to do it. Period. This points to the fact that the cars and trucks of the future will contain a variety of materials."

That seems reasonable enough, especially because Mr. Abouzahr has been making similar statements publicly for years. But well-placed sources say aluminum industry executives, some of whom have made huge investments in the Prowler program, were hopping mad after seeing him quoted in the Detroit News.

It's a good example of how tough the competition is in exterior body panels. It used to be plastics were always duking it out with steel on exterior parts. But now an old feud between SMC and aluminum seems to be escalating to a full-scale war in the body-panel business as they both fight to replace steel parts.

The stakes are getting higher. Use of SMC and aluminum is growing fast, and each has targeted lightweight body panels as critical turf. SMCAA brags that its material is the fastest-growing plastic replacing steel for automotive components, and projects a 20% jump in SMC used by automakers in 1996 over '95. Structural components are an increasingly important part of SMC business, but horizontal body panels such as hoods remain a core market. Meanwhile, the total amount of aluminum content in 1996 North American light vehicles rose more than 80% in the last five years, says a new study funded by the Aluminum Association. In 1996 an estimated 67.5 million lbs. (30.6 million kg) of aluminum will be used for vehicle bodies-in-white, body panels and bumpers. While BIWs and body panels currently account for a small share of the total 3.6 billion lbs. (1.6 billion kg) of aluminum used in vehicles, they represent the segment with the most growth potential in the auto industry. SMC proponents claim aluminum "is the most expensive way to save weight," and add that it's difficult to form and dents easily. Aluminum producers counter that aluminum can be cost-effective in both high and low volumes, and point to SMC recyclability problems. Each has won crucial battles. Expect continued escalation. This could be a tough public relations year for SMC because General Motors Corp.'s SMC-skinned minivans are being phased out for '97 in favor of steel-bodied versions. The SMCAA is quick to point out that despite the loss of the APVS, business continues to boom, and new high-volume structural applications such as Ford Motor Co.'s Taurus/Sable radiator support more than make up the difference that will be lost to the GM minivans.