Every car review that remarks on the exquisite handling of the new '04 BMW 5-Series makes executives at aluminum giant Alcan Inc. smile.

The 5-Series is the poster child for a new trend in aluminum use: a material hybrid where the front end of the car, from A-pillar forward, is lightweight aluminum and the back is steel.

The '04 Jaguar XJ showed it is possible to make an entire car body of sheet aluminum. Audi AG was an early adopter of the use of aluminum for the spaceframe of the A8 in 1997 and later the small A2.

“The jump to an all-aluminum platform is too big a risk for many,” acknowledges Richard B. Evans, Alcan executive vice president. “That is why only Audi and Jaguar have done it to a large degree.”

But Alcan sees real potential in the hybrid use BMW devised for the 5-Series.

It is not surprising BMW came up with this blend — it has built its “ultimate” brand on vehicles that strive for a 50:50 weight distribution between front and rear axles for better handling and maneuverability. This can better be achieved with the weight-savings properties of aluminum up front (structure, body panels, hood, fenders, suspension). Alcan provides aluminum sheet and developed a special alloy for the front structure with energy absorption qualities that helped BMW set new body-structure standards for crash performance.

The idea for this particular metal cocktail is BMW's — with the aluminum industry playing the role of enabler, says Rod Jones, Alcan vice president of technology and engineering-automotive.

The 5-Series may be the first high-volume hybrid in terms of an aluminum front end, but will not be the last.

“Virtually all OEMs are looking at that now,” Evans says, especially in Europe.

Evans says Alcan has “three or four others coming,” declining to give specifics. He does say Audi is looking at hybrids for the next-generation A6 (the '05 Audi A6 introduced in Europe in March has an aluminum-intensive front end) while Jaguar will continue to pursue its aluminum-body strategy with future models.

Jones says the Jaguar XJ and Audi A2 demonstrate aluminum can be used to do a whole car — in two different ways. Add to that piecemeal use of aluminum for parts, and now the BMW-model hybrid scenario.

“It shows the whole range is available and works,” Jones says. “Car companies can use aluminum, and can work out their own model of how, where and how much,” he says, recognizing individual auto makers are on different parts of the learning curve.

“I think aluminum finally has reached a critical mass in automotive,” Evans says. “It has gone from a push mode in the last three years to one of pull mode.”

European customers will pay a premium for performance. They also recognize the value in sophisticated bumper systems that aid in crash management, address new pedestrian safety regulations in Europe and have the ability to reduce insurance premiums.

It has allowed Alcan to migrate from awareness campaigns to responding to customer needs.

It is not happening as quickly in North America, where OEMs still put greater emphasis on cost, Evans says. But it is starting to change as more European auto makers manufacture and market in the U.S.

It is that growing demand that prompted Alcan to build two manufacturing facilities in North America. A new facility in Troy, MI, will begin bumper system production this summer and a sister plant in Saguenay, Que., Canada, will ramp up later this year. Japan also has not fully embraced the use of aluminum, but Alcan officials see signs of change there as well.

Alcan does not expect a huge breakthrough in which everything switches to aluminum from steel. But the supplier does forecast sustained growth of aluminum and displacement of steel, with automotive uses leading the charge. Automotive now is Alcan's highest consumer of aluminum.

The recent rising cost of steel has helped because aluminum prices have not increased at the same pace, narrowing the gap somewhat between the two metals.