Are all cars constructed of the same materials? What should I look for when buying?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Jul 01, 1996

Dear Tom and Ray:

Are all cars constructed of the same materials? I know the bodies are made
of a steel frame, but what is the rest of the car made of? I was told some
cars have a lot of plastic -- doors, panels, bumpers, etc. Can you please
help me because I have to buy a car as soon as possible, and I don't want
to get stuck with a plastic car. -- Anna

RAY: I guess it's been a while since you bought a car, Anna. Most cars now
have lots of plastic components. Grills, fascias, bumper covers, trim. A
few cars, like the Saturn and the GM minivans, even have plastic door and
body panels.

TOM: And what's wrong with plastic? It's lightweight, so it increases gas
mileage. It bounces back to its original shape when dented, and it doesn't
rust. What could be better than that?

RAY: You're probably thinking that it's not as safe, but that's not
necessarily true, Anna. The car's frame is what protects you in an
accident. The sheet metal -- or plastic -- that wraps around the frame
really doesn't add much protection. If it's hit hard -- and this goes for
sheet metal as well as plastic -- it'll just crumple.

TOM: So when you're hit in the door, for instance, it's the cross members
inside the door that really protect you, not the outer layer of "skin."

RAY: So when choosing a car, don't worry about how many exterior panels are
plastic. Instead, rely on several things; common sense (generally speaking,
a larger, heavier car is usually safer than a smaller, light car), the
car's real-world safety record (like the Highway Loss Data Institute
statistics on insurance and injury claims, and predictors (like the NHTSA
crash tests).

TOM: By the way, if you have a web browser, you can look up this
information under "Virtually Useful Data" at our web site, (http: // Good luck, Anna.

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