Losing Weight Is a Hot Trend – in the Auto Industry

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Land Rover / PRNewsFoto via AP

The 2013 Range Rover from Land Rover will weigh in at an impressive 926 pounds lighter than the 2012 model.

Facing a government-mandated requirement of new cars averaging 54.5 mpg by 2025, automakers are going into overdrive figuring out ways to improve fuel economy. Some of the solutions are high-tech, with innovations and increased usage of electric and hybrid engines. Old-fashioned weight loss is helping the cause as well.

For years, cars packed on the pounds. According to a Slate article from last summer decrying the fact that, “Like Americans themselves, American cars are getting heavier and heavier every year,” the average car in the U.S. weighed over 4,000 pounds in 2010, up from an average of 3,221 pounds in 1987.

The trend finally seems to be reversing itself, however, now that automakers must vastly improve fuel efficiency in the years to come. Across the board, from rugged Ford trucks, to luxurious Land Rover SUVs, to the new Toyota Prius c (500 pounds lighter than the usual Prius), automakers are putting their vehicles on diets.

(MORE: 10 Things You Should Be Buying Used)

Fittingly, this year’s Michelin Challenge Design, an annual contest sponsored by the Michelin tire company that’s focused on innovative design, is entitled “HALF! Lightweight with a Passion.” Entrants are encouraged to submit “exciting and passionate designs that employ innovative vehicle architecture for weight reduction, without compromising safety or comfort.”

The reason for the focus on cutting weight is simple: Lighter cars are more fuel-efficient cars. “Over the next several years, light-weighting of vehicles will be a major focus area to improve fuel economy,” Jon Lauckner, GM’s chief technology officer, said simply while recently announcing a major weight-reducing initiative by GM.

Among the latest examples of automakers pushing for lighter and lighter cars:

Ford
Last month, news broke that Ford would soon be swapping in aluminum for steel in the body of its best-selling F-150 series of pickup trucks. Aluminum costs significantly more than steel, and aluminum also doesn’t have the reputation for toughness and durability of steel. Nonetheless, Ford is turning to aluminum because it weighs a lot less than steel, allowing an F-150 to come out of the factory weighing 700 pounds less—and with 25% improved fuel economy.

(MORE: Can an Aluminum Truck Really Be Considered ‘Ford Tough’?)

General Motors
Instead of focusing on aluminum, General Motors is viewing another lightweight weight—NanoSteel—as a possible solution in the quest to cut car weight. In early August, GM announced its subsidiary GM Ventures was investing in the Rhode Island-based NanoSteel Company, which produces a strong but lightweight steel that, when used in cars, may help cut weight by “hundreds of pounds.”

Land Rover
As USA Today reported, the 2013 Range Rover from Land Rover will weigh in at an impressive 926 pounds lighter than the 2012 model. The weight was cut through increased usage of aluminum in a frame that’s 39% lighter, and a new V-8 engine that’s a whopping 700 pounds less than its predecessor.

(MORE: Size Matters: Now Automakers Are Bragging About How Small Their Engines Are)

Mazda
The Japanese automaker seems to have signed up its entire fleet to participate in “The Biggest Loser.” The company recently announced its goal of cutting at least 220 pounds of weight from vehicles during each redesign. Mazda easily surpassed the mark with the introduction of the CX-5, which is replacing the CX-7 in the U.S. Motor Trend credited the “generous use of high-strength steel and lighter components like Mazda’s new Skyactiv transmissions” in the CX-5 as the reason why it came in weighing 575 pounds less than the CX-7.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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Raymond Chuang
Raymond Chuang

Actually, here's the next big trend in lightening automobiles: more use of titanium.

It may sound crazy, but now with the development of vastly less expensive techniques of refining titanium metal in recent years, it now makes it viable for automobiles to be substantially lighter without losing body strength. For example, a 2012 Honda Fit Sport weighs just over 2,600 pounds; with more use of titanium alloys, we could cut that to under 2,200 pounds quite easily without losing structural integrity.