Is Aluminum Better and Safer Than Steel in Cars and Trucks?

Propelled by a public feud of sorts between Chevrolet and Ford, the debate between whether aluminum or steel is safer in vehicles has become fervent. In the past year, GM has unveiled ads that take aim at the aluminum-bodied Ford F-150, with their test showing the Silverado is better-equipped at absorbing sharp impact loads.

Still, it’s interesting to note that Chevrolet is also currently in the midst of creating aluminum trucks as well. GM plans to use more aluminum and lightweight steel for 2018, despite their own criticism of the F-150, alongside some questionable reports on the vehicle’s repairability. All this debate and consequent contradiction is leaving many consumers confused as to which material is truly the more superior option in cars and trucks.

Aluminum: Fuel Efficiency and Challenging Repairability

Ford’s CEO Alan Mullaly noted in 2013 that “pound for pound, aluminum is stronger and tougher than steel.” Since then, the car manufacturer has been at the forefront of the material. One of the biggest perks is aluminum can improve a vehicle’s fuel economy by up to 29%. While that’s great for mileage, much of the criticism regarding the material has centered around repairability, as well as the difficulty obtaining replacement parts, since aluminum is fickle to bend, and bashed-in sheet metal can be difficult to replace.

Numerous Ford owners have found paint on the aluminum tailgate to begin bubbling after several years, which has been linked to oxidizing, or contamination during the painting process. Aluminum is more vulnerable to contamination than steel, a notable negative of the material.

Aware of the issue with corrosion with some older models, Ford has issued TSBs — technical service bulletins — regarding aluminum-related issues, in addition to GM, Jaguar and Audi. This allows consumers to get free repairs for the issue. Ford vows that the F-150 won’t suffer from this issue and has included a five-year unlimited-mileage warranty for corrosion and paint damage to back their confidence up.

So while aluminum may save you more money at the gas pump, there are concerns that paint-related damage down the line may cost a pretty penny. Still, this has not prevented a high number of work trucks from switching to aluminum truck bodies, which are 50% lighter than comparable steel bodies.

Steel: A Cost Advantage

While the fuel efficiency of aluminum is appealing to some, other manufacturers are looking at cost savings as a whole when switching their aluminum parts back to steel, such as the Infiniti Q50, Acura RDX and VW Golf. Additionally, as it has been the more long-term standard, steel is more easily repairable and replaceable than its aluminum counterpart. Its production is also less intensive, with aluminum requiring five times the carbon dioxide emissions to create compared to steel, according to Lawrence Kavanagh, the president of the Steel Market Development Institute.

However, aluminum is superior in recycling, with 75% of all aluminum produced since 1888 still being used today. While steel may be the more familiar and currently leading material, aluminum is certainly rising in a time where eco-friendly and recycling initiatives are prominent. It will be interesting to see how manufacturers continue their approach. For now, they will likely to continue dabbling with both materials.

From Scott Huntington, a guest NMA blogger who is an automotive writer from central Pennsylvania. Check out his work at Off the Throttle or follow him on Twitter@SMHuntington

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