South Korean automaker Hyundai Motor Co. dropped its new Sonata sedan from the ceiling of Detroit's Cobo Hall convention center Jan. 10, intent on making a splash with its first U.S.-made car.
The entry-level-priced car, executives boasted, will come with a full line of safety equipment previously available only on higher-end brands or as an option.
A day later, South Korean counterpart Kia Motors Corp. announced its entire vehicle line will have six standard air bags by the end of 2005, while Honda Motor Co. Ltd. President and Chief Executive Officer Takeo Fukui laid out details for the next-generation Civic, which also will have six air bags as standard equipment.
The safety wars are coming to low-priced vehicles, at the crest of a wave that is likely to double the use of side-impact and curtain air bags, along with boosting the use of plastics in air-bag triggers and housings and affecting the trim surrounding them.
And while North American car sales may be stagnant, air bags provide one bright light for auto suppliers.
``As the [use] rate increases, there is going to be steeper growth than the vehicle build numbers would have you believe,'' said Robert Block, vice president of air-bag engineering and program management for Key Safety Systems, a Sterling Heights, Mich.-based supplier of air bags, seat belts and other components.
An increased emphasis on side-impact and curtain air bags will translate to increased plastics requirements in passenger cars, and a new emphasis on how the safety systems integrate into existing injection molded and thermoformed interior trim.
Generally speaking, the ``six standard air bags'' in auto-selling words translates into two side-impact air bags - housed either within the front seats or beneath the trim on the ``B'' column behind the front doors - and two curtain air bags tucked along the roof rail, hidden beneath the fabric-covered headliner and molded trim, ready to drop down along the length of the passenger compartment windows.
Those four bags are added to the driver-side and passenger-side air bags to create a buffer around the passenger compartment.
The units may use only small plastic components on the triggering devices or could be housed in larger, hidden plastic units. The air bag in a seat, for instance, is stored either in a plastic clamshell-type container triggered to burst open through the seat seam, or in a fabric pouch, depending on the automaker's preference, Block said.
The additional air bags have been standard for higher-priced vehicles for years. Experts believed they would gradually migrate down the vehicle chain to the point where eventually they would become more widely used in nearly all passenger cars.
But changes to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's testing requirements for side impacts will force wider use of the air bags by 2007, noted Anthony Pratt, senior manager-global powertrain in Troy, Mich., for consultants J.D. Power & Associates.
Hyundai, Kia and Honda are at the front of an effort to bring those bags into standard compliance ahead of any federal mandate - and promoting them as a competitive advantage.
``They're being proactive in getting them out there,'' Pratt said. ``Their point is that they don't think they should profit off of safety issues.''
Kia's Rio sedan does not even have power steering as a standard item, pointed out Randy Maurstad, Kia director of product planning, but it will have six air bags as standard when it debuts later this year. The company has not announced a retail price for the car, though the current edition starts at less than $11,000.
Hyundai's Sonata, which will sell for less than $20,000, operates in a tough selling environment, said Mike Anson, manager of product public relations for Hyundai North America.
``The way to stand out in a crowd is to give people more for their money,'' he said.
By comparison, General Motors Corp.'s Saturn Ion adds a $395 fee as an optional air-bag upgrade on an $18,000 model. Ford Motor Corp.'s $18,000 Focus makes the additional air bags available for $350.
As the units migrate into more cars, air-bag makers, automakers and interior-trim suppliers are working in unison to find the best way to package the systems.
A typical curtain air bag now forces the headliner to drop away in a collision, making space for it to deploy. Interior supplier Johnson Controls Inc. has a prototype replacement for the overhead system that would house an air bag in a perimeter, injection molded frame around the ceiling area.
The hard plastic trim is easier to control for air-bag deployment, said Rob Hamelink, chief engineer for overhead product development at JCI's Plymouth, Mich.-based auto supply unit. The company could even mold in ribs that would give way in a crash, providing another layer of protection.
``There are a lot of different things that have to be considered - how do we install [the air bags], how do we deploy them, does it come as part of a module or does the [carmaker] install them separately,'' said Key Safety's Block. ``It's very important that we work well with the trim suppliers when we're developing these.''