Carbon fiber is continuing to rev up interest in the auto industry, with the material showing up on vehicles for all three of the major North American carmakers and investigations continuing into further uses.
Until a year ago, carbon fiber had limited exposure in the industry - appearing mainly on high-price ``supercars'' costing in excess of $200,000. But in 2002, DaimlerChrysler AG's Dodge Viper sports car debuted with a carbon-fiber sheet molding compound structural support.
This year, Detroit-based General Motors Corp. introduced some versions of its Corvette with a carbon-fiber hood and BMW AG of Munich, Germany, rolled out an M3 CSL with a carbon-fiber roof module.
Ford Motor Co. of Dearborn, Mich., will join the ranks next year when its GT sports car - while mostly aluminum - will use carbon fiber as a structural system in the rear deck lid.
``The thing with carbon fiber is that it's sexy,'' Dale Brosius, president of Brosius Management Consulting, said during the Society of Plastics Engineers' 2003 Automotive Composites Conference, held Sept. 9-10 in Troy. ``You can design really nice shapes. You can make art out of it. And it's associated with things that go really fast.''
Japanese automakers also have adapted it, using the composite on the hood of Honda Motor Co. Ltd.'s Acura NSXR, the hood of the Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. Skyline GT-R V spec - both sold in Japan - and as an optional rear spoiler on the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, available in North America.
DaimlerChrysler's Mercedes unit added another supercar to the carbon-fiber offerings Sept. 9 during the Frankfurt auto show in Germany with its SLR McLaren.
The car not only has a carbon-fiber body, it also relies on it for the front crash structure, giving two 71/2-pound composite structures responsibility for absorbing the entire energy of a front-end collision in a car capable of speeds in excess of 200 mph.
Carbon fiber also is used to protect passengers from front or rear crashes, DaimlerChrysler noted in its promotions for the SLR. The German-American company has corporate offices in Stuttgart, Germany, and Auburn Hills, Mich.,
``The crash safety standards achieved using this innovative material are high,'' the company claimed in its news release.
The SLR will sell for more than $250,000, though, making its use of higher-price carbon fiber easier to justify. The key toward wider use in vehicles available to a wider range of the driving public will depend on the material's cost, Brosius said.
Automakers used carbon fiber on drive shifts in the 1980s, but when raw material costs went up, use dropped. Now that the composite is selling for $6-$7 a pound - and nearing a drop below $5, he predicted - it is coming into reach for wider use once again.
Some of that expansion may be to younger consumers who look for carbon fiber as they fine-tune their cars with aftermarket parts.
``There are certain people that, if they can see the carbon-fiber weave, they will accept it,'' said David Leone, chief engineer for GM's new Cadillac XLR roadster, which uses a variety of SMC and reinforced reaction injection molded composites for its body structure.