A 1985 Chrysler K-car sedan weighed about 2,300 lbs. Now, something new and the same size as a Mazda3 sedan or a Honda Civic weighs about 700 pounds more. Even a car like the Mazda Miata, a minimalist two-seater roadster and one of the lightest new cars there is, weighs almost 2,800 lbs., several hundred pounds more than similar cars once weighed.
This weight gain, which has happened across the board, affecting every type of car, is no great secret. Almost everyone who knows anything about cars knows modern cars are the heaviest cars ever made.
They also know why.
Cars have gained weight over the past 40 years because Uncle has been serially porking autos a steady diet of regulations pertaining to the impact forces they must absorb without transmitting them to the people within and via regulations requiring them to have such things as half a dozen airbags. These kinds of additions could not just be screwed into the dashboard and door panels but required a wholesale redesign of not just the dashboard (and doors) but all of the underlying structure as well.
This requires more structure and more steel, which isn’t light. This is the main reason why the average 2021 car, truck, or crossover is, literally, a heavyweight.
It is also why it is a glass-jawed heavyweight.
Almost all of the structure is under-the-skin, which is now almost paper-thin, including the metal if it’s even still made of metal at all.
About a third of the exterior skin of a typical new vehicle is made of plastic. The entirety of the front and rear ends, in most cases and not just the grill. Even the headlights are made of plastic—to shed weight.
Or rather, automakers needed to counterbalance the weight that went into the car and keep the car from becoming a super-heavyweight.
This is why the metal used for exterior body panels such as the hood, fenders, and so on is now barely thick enough not to be see-through. That’s an exaggeration, but only slightly. In many cases, the fenders and hoods aren’t even made of steel at all. Aluminum that you can ripple practically by blowing on it is used instead.
All of it is purely cosmetic—in the manner of a cloth over a table. If you hit anything or if anything hits you, like a deer, you’ll likely be fine, but the car will be badly hurt.
As an example, I am test driving the just-redesigned 2021 Ford F-150 this week. This truck hasn’t any external metal bumpers. It has a front clip made entirely of plastic and a body made entirely of aluminum. If a deer hit the truck, it would be awful for the truck and bad for the owner of this truck’s wallet.
A grown buck struck at 45 MPH would probably take out the entire front clip, hood, and fenders. The repair bill could easily exceed $10,000. In ten years, when this truck has depreciated to not much more than $10,000, such a hit could total this truck.
This potential cost is reflected in actual insurance premium costs, as insurers know very well how much it costs to repair “safe” modern vehicles.
And make you pay for it.
Despite its entirely aluminum (and plastic) body, the 2021 F-150 weighs about the same as an all-steel 1970 F-truck. Its flimsier exterior makes up for its tougher interior.
In the Unsafe Days, when cars weighed a great deal less, they were made of steel thick enough that it took hitting something to bend them. You could not bend them by hand. Even a tiny car like the old VW Beetle had external metal bumpers protecting its front end. It was capable of absorbing minor impacts without incurring significant costs. The metal used for fenders and doors had much more structural integrity, too.
An old Beetle would perform very poorly if subjected to modern crash-testing but performed better in resisting expensive cosmetic damage in real-world crash testing.
It and other cars of the past were lighter and tougher in terms of their exteriors. You had to really hit something to total one.
Modern cars are so flimsy on the outside that they probably shouldn’t be taken outside at all. They are the automotive equivalent of people afflicted with hemophilia. The slightest bump can incur major and financially fatal damage.
The modern car is indeed much more likely to keep you from being damaged in a major bump. But you pay for that, even if you never get majorly bumped.
Once-upon-a-time, we were free to weigh the pros and cons and decide for ourselves whether a theoretically “safer” (for us, if we crashed) car was worth the weight and the cost versus a sturdier and lighter car that cost us less.
Maybe one day, we’ll be free to weigh those pros and cons again.
Eric Peters lives in Virginia and enjoys driving cars and motorcycles. In the past, Eric worked as a car journalist for many prominent mainstream media outlets. Currently, he focuses his time writing auto history books, reviewing cars, and blogging about cars+ for his website EricPetersAutos.com.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.