“Don’t touch the car, it’s made of aluminum.” That was my first youthful introduction to the automotive use of the light metal: It was soft, expensive and better left alone by curious 12-year-olds.
My parents’ neighbor had a yellow Ferrari and whenever he parked it out front in the summer; my friends and I were drawn to it like flies to flypaper.
If the owner had been truthful, and simply told us to keep our filthy little paw prints off his prized possession, I would have emerged from adolescence with a more accurate understanding of automotive materials. Instead, like many people, I spent years thinking aluminum vehicles had the structural integrity of a soda can.
In reality, despite aluminum’s light weight, some of the strongest, sturdiest vehicles on earth are made from the material: aircraft, spacecraft and countless battlefield vehicles, including the original H1 Hummer.
Jaguar Land Rover is hammering this point home as it rolls out its second all-aluminum CUV, the Range Rover Sport. It shares the automaker’s all-new aluminum unibody architecture with the larger ’13 Range Rover flagship introduced last year.
The architecture replaces the previous generation’s integrated body frame that featured a steel unibody mounted on a full-frame chassis. Switching to aluminum reduces overall body and chassis weight 39%, amounting to an astonishing 800-lb. (363 kg) weight reduction for U.S. models.
Range Rover officials say the new architecture represents several breakthroughs, including the first automotive use of high-strength AC300 aluminum within the crash structure and vehicle body sides that are formed as single aluminum panels, reducing the number of joints and improving structural integrity.
Weighing between 4,427 lbs. (2,144 kg) and 5,093 lbs. (2,310 kg) depending on engine size, the truck is hardly a lightweight, but the incredibly stiff body combined with Ranger Rover’s advanced suspension design and dynamic chassis control technologies make the CUV surprisingly agile with very little body roll or understeer. Fuel economy and emissions also are improved significantly.
During the recent U.S. press launch of the Range Rover Sport, the auto maker took pains to prove the truck is unmatched in its ability to cope with the most extreme, bone-jarring off-road conditions, sometimes putting two wheels in the air to crawl through deep ruts.
Even so, Michael Levitan, a major Jaguar and Land Rover dealer based in Long Island, NY, acknowledges some customers are concerned when they learn the body material has changed.
“When they hear aluminum, their first reaction is a Pepsi can. Who wants to get hit in a Pepsi can?”
However, Levitan says once salespeople explain the strengths of aluminum, how the vehicle structure is put together with aerospace joining techniques, and that it is the strongest body JLR has ever produced, their fears usually are dispelled.
Extensive training of dealership personnel about the vehicle’s construction and its capabilities has helped. “It’s the best training I’ve ever seen,” Levitan says.
And, many Range Rover owners do like to put their vehicles to the test, slogging through mud and ruts even with top-of-the-line $135,000 vehicles, Levitan says. His dealerships host several off-road training events every year for about 50 customers, and some attendees want him to host even more, he says.
The Range Rover Sport is the sixth all-aluminum model from JLR since the Jaguar XJ was introduced in 2001. Jaguar unveiled an all-aluminum small CUV concept at the Frankfurt auto show.
Aluminum supplier Novelis says in five years, numerous high-volume, aluminum-intensive passenger vehicles will be in showrooms.
The most significant coming down the road is the ’15 Ford F-150 pickup, expected to go on sale around October 2014. The F-Series has defined itself for the past six decades or so as the toughest light vehicle in the marketplace.
Once Ford starts rolling out its massive marketing and training programs for the new F-150, expect it to finish the job Range Rover has started and aluminum’s soft, crinkly “soda can” image will be buried for good.
You can bet not a single owner of a ’15 Ford F-150 will tell curious kids: “Don’t touch the truck. It’s aluminum.”