Despite tough competition from alternative materials, Andrew G. Sharkey, president of the American Iron and Steel Institute, tells reporters he expects 1995 to be "another banner year for us." Shipments to automotive customers in 1994 are up 16.9% from 1993. Furthermore, he says steel's inherent low cost, ease of recyclability and further productivity improvements should keep automotive demand high for the foreseeable future.

By working together through the Auto/ Steel Partnership program, steelmakers and automakers have managed to standardize some production tooling and chop costs by as much as 70%, says Martin A. Rumel, executive director of the A/SP. Steelmakers also played up progress on the UltraLight Steel Auto Body study - a research project funded by 31 major steel companies to design the lightest-possible steelbodied car. AISI officials promise to show off a prototype all-steel body that is 30% to 40% lighter than a conventional body-in-white by late summer.

CERAMIC VALVES NOT DEAD - ONLY SLEEPING

Research into ceramic engines and engine parts was largely abandoned in the late 1980s after a series of disappointing test results by numerous automakers. But Hoechst CeramTec, a subsidiary of Hoechst AG is out on the public relations trail again touting the benefits of its silicon nitride ceramic valves.

Compared to conventional metal valves, the ceramics yield reductions in fuel consumption and emissions plus higher torque in tests on Ford, BMW and Mercedes engines, Hoechst CeramTec says. For instance, hydrocarbons decreased 2%, nitrogen oxide emissions dropped almost 20% and carbon monoxide by about 9% on a BMW 520i engine equipped with ceramic valves, Hoechst says.

WHY FORD CHOSE SMC

The re-designed 1995 Lincoln Continental has more and larger sheet molding composite (SMC) components than any other car sold in the U.S.: front fenders, hoods, trunklids, quarter-panel extensions and sunshades.

During an SAE press briefing, Philip Ernzen, body engineering manager on the new Continental's platform team, says SMC was selected because of four basic advantages over competing materials: Low investment - 23% under steel for tooling; lower weight - 83% of steel's weight for comparable components; styling flexibility; and "our confidence in SMC."

Styling was an important issue, says Mr. Ernzen. "We designed a sharp nose on the front fenders (where they join with the parking lamps and hood)," he says, and "they could only be made with SMC. The point is, we can restyle easily by using SMC." Ding- and dent-resistance both in handling the SMC parts during production and in normal driving also are pluses, as is its corrosion-resistance, he says.

Ford also used SMC extensively in revamping Mustang for '94 and on the new Windstar minivan introduced early last year.

Although Ford saved money and weight by using SMC for major body panels, the 95 Continental is priced about $7,000 above its predecessor. The new version also weighs about 400 lbs. (182 kg) more at close to 4,000 lbs. (1,820 kg). Mr. Ernzen says Ford added content in developing the new model, more than offsetting any savings traceable to using SMC. "With the weight saved, we could put more features in the vehicle," he says.

Al Trueman, chairman of the SMC Automotive Alliance and vice president-sales and marketing of the Budd Co.'s Plastics Div., says SMC usage climbed 10% in 1995 model cars and trucks on top of a 16% gain in the '94 models. The material currently is used in 300 components in 100 vehicles produced by 28 automakers around the world, he adds.