Catch a glimpse of the world of tomorrow in the Volvo LCP

It weighs a mere 1,500 pounds, is a little more than 13 feet long, the two rear-seat passengers face to the back, and the skinflint engine has a top highway speed in excess of 100 m.p.h.

Welcome to the automotive world of the year 2000!

While Volvo doesn't necessarily say that the LCP (Light Components Project) is what you'll be buying when you order a new car in 2001, or maybe 2005, some of the ideas, components, and construction techniques are likely to find their way into the cars of tomorrow.

The plastic-bodied Volvo LCP is an imaginative engineering study for what may be ahead in lightweight structures and propulsion systems. To save weight, for example, the vehicle uses 110 pounds of magnesium and 385 pounds of aluminum, far more than any automotive designer would consider a viable choice today.

Begun in 1979, the long-range research project includes four prototype vehicles to test alternative fuels, engines, and transmissions.

The engine in the test vehicle I drove is a 1.4-liter, turbocharged, intercooled, heat-insulated (adiabatic), direct-injection diesel, but it will also burn a wide variety of other combustible liquids, including salad oil and used crankcase oil. The engine-cooling system uses oil, while an alternative 1.3 -liter engine uses water.

One of the prototypes has a steel-belt continuously variable transmission (CVT). All employ three cyclinders, and the cars are front-wheel drive.

In building the LCP Volvo, engineers took a fresh look at assembly techniques to upgrade quality and lower costs. The test vehicle starts with a welded aluminum platform to which a front subassembly is bolted, including the drive train and steering. The rear subassembly contains the rear suspension.

The interior - wiring, dashboard, carpets, and seats - is then put together. The roof, a separate subassembly, is bolted into place, as is the front assembly which includes the headlights, radiator, horn, etc. Finally, the doors, front hood, rear deck, and body panels are attached.

More than 120 companies around the world have participated in the LCP project , including Alcoa, Budd, and 3M in the United States.

When the project began in 1979 the objectives were:

* A 2-seater vehicle with enough room for riders and ample luggage.

* Maximum weight of 1,540 pounds with a drag coefficient of less than 0.30.

* Fuel economy of 55 miles a gallon and 0 to 60 m.p.h. acceleration in less than 13 seconds.

* Meeting of all safety and emissions regulations and the capability of mass production.

* Easy recyclability and low total energy consumption even in the assembly process.

To get into the LCP, just punch a code into an outside panel, slip down into the driver's seat, turn a knob (no key here, either) to start the engine, shift into gear, and you're on your way.

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