What are Cars Made Out Of?

Jack R. Nerad | Oct 28, 2020

We drive cars every day, but few of us ever take time to wonder to ourselves: "What are cars made out of?" Though on the face of it, the question sounds like the naive query of a child, there is actually a lot to be learned by understanding what materials car companies use in the manufacture of today's automobiles.

What Are Cars Made Of

On our heavily interconnected planet, the substances that cars are made of can make a big difference in how efficient they are and the footprints they leave. Some materials are relatively abundant, easy to obtain, and simple to form, while others are rare and require a great deal of energy during their manufacture. Finding the right combination of materials that will result in a safe, fuel-efficient, good-looking personal transport device is both an art and a science. 

By simply examining a car inside and out, even the least observant among us can determine that a vehicle is made of a lot of different stuff. There is shiny stuff, soft stuff, hard stuff, and transparent stuff to sum things up in an unsophisticated way. But let's get a little more specific about what cars are made of and what those materials contribute to each vehicle that they're a part of.

Metals - Find the best car deals!

By weight, various metals comprise the vast majority of the typical car. According to ScienceDaily, a metal is an element or alloy of elements that readily forms positive ions and has metallic bonds. Metals tend to have similar properties, including lustrous, ductile, malleable, and good electricity conductors. At the same time, nonmetals are generally brittle, lack luster, and insulators rather than conductors of electricity. 

Steel is the most common material in the typical car, as it has been for almost 100 years. Strong and relatively inexpensive, steel is an alloy of iron and carbon containing less than 2% carbon and 1% manganese and small amounts of silicon, phosphorus, sulfur, and oxygen. In addition to its use in automobiles, steel is the world's most important engineering and construction material. It is used in everything from buildings to home appliances to ships to surgical tools. 

Virtually every car on the road is formed primarily of steel, including its chassis and body. Steel finds heavy use in vehicle manufacturing because it is relatively inexpensive and easy to form by tools like stamping presses. Beyond vehicle bodies and chassis, automakers also use steel in suspension components, exhaust parts, wheels, electric motors, and engines.

Aluminum is a fast-growing rival of steel in vehicle manufacture, and its use as an auto body material has grown significantly over the past decade. Aluminum is an element, and it is lighter than steel and by weight stronger as well. The material's lightweight characteristics have made it popular with auto engineers who seek to remove mass from cars for fuel economy and emissions reasons. Ten years ago, aluminum was only used in exotic and luxury cars, but now many mainstream cars have aluminum hoods, doors, and trunk lids. Aluminum is also gaining favor as an engine block material, taking cast iron in many vehicles.

Copper is a shiny, reddish element that is not only one of the most-used metals in consumer products today, but it is also believed to be the first metal worked by humans, who formed it into a variety of tools and decorations tens of thousands of years ago. The U.S. Geological Survey ranks copper as the third-most used industrial metal globally, and the reason for its current popularity is its exceptional ability to conduct electricity. Because of that, the copper used in automobiles is primarily in its electrical wiring and electric motors.

Other metals used in vehicle construction are lead, primarily in lead-acid batteries, and platinum, palladium, and rhodium — rare and expensive metals used in catalytic converters. Magnesium and titanium, two other metals that are typically very strong for their weight, also find their way into some cars, mostly expensive high-performance vehicles.

Glass - Find the best car deals!

Anyone who looks at a car can readily see that glass is an essential component. It would be quite hard to drive if you couldn't see the road, so glass is critical to any car that isn't self-driving. 

According to Corning, which knows quite a lot about it, glass is a rigid material formed by first heating a mixture of dry materials like silica to a viscous state. Then, to form glass, the ingredients must be cooled fast in order to prevent a regular crystalline structure from forming. As the glass cools, the atoms are locked in a disordered state like a liquid before forming into the perfect crystal arrangement of a solid. Because it is neither a liquid nor a solid, but it shares the qualities of both, glass is therefore its own state of matter. Not only that, but often you can see right through it. 

Windshields, side windows, "backlights" (the auto industry term for the rear window), rear-view mirrors, and interior mirrors all use glass. Some auto bodies and trim pieces use fiberglass, a plastic material reinforced by glass fibers.

Plastics - Find the best car deals!

What Are Cars Made Of interior Materialsl

As with aluminum, the never-fading drive for increased fuel economy has given plastics a boost as a component of today's vehicles. The term plastics is often used as if it is one material, but plastics are actually a broad range of synthetic or semi-synthetic materials used in a seemingly ever-expanding range of applications. Plastics used in automobiles are typically produced from natural products such as cellulose, coal, natural gas, salt, and crude oil.

The fuel tanks in many of today's vehicles are made of plastic, as are the body and trim pieces seen on virtually every car's exterior. Inside the typical automobile, plastics are used even more extensively. Plastics make up nearly all the soft- and hard-trim pieces in the average car. Typically, a car's dashboard, instruments, infotainment displays, seat padding, armrests, and consoles are all made of plastics of one type or another. Leather seating surfaces are often plastic-coated for added durability. 

Advances in plastics technology have also enabled vehicle engineers to specify plastic components in engines and drivetrains, parts that previously would have been made of metal. 

Rubber - Find the best car deals!

When you look at any car, it is evident that the all-important tires are made of rubber, so that material must be on the list when you catalog what cars are made out of. But in reality, saying tires are made of rubber is too simple an explanation. 

According to Michelin, over 200 "ingredients" go into a tire, all playing vital roles in safety, fuel efficiency, performance, and eco-friendliness. Despite what you might think, the tread layers are not synthetic rubber but are still formed of natural rubber, while synthetic rubber is used to strengthen the tread and provide added wear. Carbon black and silica are also used in tire construction to aid durability, while metal and textile reinforcement cables form the skeleton of the tire, giving its shape and providing rigidity. Often other chemical agents are added to provide tires unique properties like less rolling resistance or better grip.

The Bottom Line - Find the best car deals!

Having read this, the next time you look at your car, you might have a better understanding and appreciation of the materials that have gone into it. When you think about it, each car is a unique and fascinating combination of elements and compounds that are sourced from around the world. That is what it takes to provide each of us with the cherished freedom personal mobility offers.

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