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Ford concept car shows benefits of weight loss

Electrification and efficient drivetrains play a part in increased fuel economy, but making cars lighter delivers the coup de grace.

Ford Advanced Materials car
Ford's Advanced Materials concept shaves about 25 percent of the weight from the Fusion midsize sedan on which it is based. Josh Miller/CNET

Editors' note, June 3, 2014: This review has been updated from its originally published form to reflect new information from Ford.

Among US automakers, Ford pushed hardest at making its cars more efficient. It came out with hybrids that rival those from Toyota and developed its Ecoboost line of engines, which showed how a V-6 could work fine for a pick-up truck. Most recently, Ford redesigned its legendary F-150 , using aluminum to knock 700 pounds off the scale.

Now Ford reveals more of its "lightweighting" strategy, showing off a concept car that uses advanced materials to shed pounds.

On the surface, the Advanced Materials Car may look like a Ford Fusion , but this concept replaces standard metal and glass components with aluminum, carbon fiber, and other materials. As in the new F-150, aluminum accounts for body panels, and also finds its way into the brake rotors and transmission components. High-strength steel, thinner and lighter than standard steel, makes up other body parts to preserve safety.

Carbon fiber gets extended use throughout the vehicle. Seats are a particularly heavy piece of any car, so Ford uses carbon fiber for the concept's seat frames. Likewise, the concept uses 19-inch carbon-fiber wheels. These wheels are also narrower then standard wheels used today. Even the oil pan is made of carbon fiber.

Even the vehicle glass is up for review. For the rear window, called the backlight in automotive terms, Ford uses a polycarbonate, similar to what's used for headlight lenses. The windshield remains glass, but it is more akin to the glass found on a smartphone than traditional windshield glass. A chemical treatment allows for thinner glass that remains strong and scratch-resistant.

Ford is also working on new battery technology with Samsung for further weight savings. This new combination lithium ion and lead-acid battery weighs 40 percent less than a standard car battery.

Ford claims the concept vehicle weighs 25 percent less than the Fusion midsize sedan on which it is based.

The lighter weight allows Ford to use its one-liter, three-cylinder engine, the same one that powers the Fiesta Ecoboost , in the concept. Although low in displacement, this engine makes use of direct injection, valve tuning, and a turbocharger to generate 123 horsepower.

The new battery technology would also allow Ford to implement a robust idle-stop feature, similar to what BMW uses. The combination lithium ion and lead-acid battery can store energy from regenerative braking, so the car can still run climate control and other systems while the engine is off.

Ford points out that not only does shaving weight advance fuel economy, it also makes the car handle better -- acceleration is quicker, and stopping distances are shorter. There is less load on the suspension when the car takes a turn.

Currently, Ford has created six of these Advanced Materials Cars and is using them to test the durability, safety, and ride quality of the car. Two of the cars are slated for crash-testing, and two more will undergo corrosion testing.

The new F-150 shows Ford is willing to take radical steps to improve fuel economy. The materials used in this new concept may not be cost-effective for production just yet, but they demonstrate an important branch of research for the car of tomorrow.