Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Hydroforming the Future
Forbes magazine had an article (no link as access now requires purchase) in the January 31 issue about the Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky roadsters. I love roadsters. When the Miata redefined the genre back in ... well, a long time ago. I was impressed. It thought it was the best new design to hit the autoimotive world in years. Since then, the roadster genre has been populated by a good number of entrants: The Honda S2000, the evolving Miata (of course), the BMW Z3 and Z4, and the finest expression of type - the Porsche Boxster. As a type, I think these cars are some of the best looking hunks of machinery to back up at stoplights all over the country. Alas, I am not of a size to fit the roadster (though that will change).
I am not a particular fan of GM but the Solstice (warning - butt annoying flashing banner in that link) and the Sky could change my mind. Neither is perfect. The Sky, at least in the pictures at the link, has a little too much the shape of a bar of soap. The Solstice has a blunted front end that will never thrill me. Surprisingly, it's the Boxster and the Miata that really get the styling cues right. In my eye of course. And surprising because of the price differential between the two.
However. Both the Sky and the Solstice are inexpensive and handsome and should do well if innovation is to be rewarded in this imperfect world. (By the way, the image of the front end of the Sky in Forbes is vastly better looking than the images in the link. I don't know the reason for the discrepancy.) What is really intriguing is that GM is using hydroforming to create sheet metal for these critters. To steal a quote from the article:
In the traditional stamping process, flat sheets of steel are shaped into body panels when placed between a pair of custom dies, worth as much as $1 million each, that are slammed together in presses. Hydroforming uses water pressure (up to 15,000 pounds per square inch) to force flat steel against a one-sided tool, achieving the same result for half the cost. Its ability to shape more curves and sharp creases than a stamping press makes it ideal for expressive vehicles like the Solstice and Sky.
My prediction: the Solstice and Sky will be very popular - likely sell-outs since they offer Z-4 flash for something like $15 K less. And hydroforming will not only be progressively more utilized, it will be progressively refined. In about five years we should be seeing ever more beautiful sheet metal coming out of car factories. Bravo!

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