WILL THE BIG THREE EMBRACE MOLDED-IN COLOR

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DETROIT — Paint is out. Molded-in color is in.

That could be the message delivered by Chrysler Corp. on the opening day of the North American International Auto Show, Jan. 5 in Detroit.

The automaker rolled out its new Plymouth Pronto concept car, a small, four-passenger sedan with a big difference: The body panels are made entirely from all-composite thermoplastic with molded-in color over its entire 148-inch length.

Not a drop of paint adheres to any portion of the car, including the plastic trim and blow molded front and rear bumper panels.

Though many concept cars never make it to production, Chrysler's recent concept cars have included the Dodge Neon, Jeep Grand Cherokee and Plymouth Prowler, all of which are in production. Chrysler design director K. Neil Walling said it takes at least three years for a concept car to reach production if the company decides to move forward.

The Pronto is not the first car to feature thermoplastic body panels. Other models, including General Motors' Saturn and the Pontiac Fiero, use plastic body panels to some degree. Yet, spokesmen for the Big Three automakers said the Pronto is the first car to feature molded-in color over an entire automobile.

``I don't know if we would ever consider eliminating the paint process completely,'' said GM spokesman Tom Klipstine. ``When our customers enter our showrooms, one of the first things they consider is not necessarily how the car drives but how the car looks. A good paint job is extremely important to a purchasing decision.''

Chrysler's decision to create a plastic-skinned automobile, with molded-in color the shade of vanilla, came down to affordability. The Pronto, targeted for the limited-income youth market, would be priced as an entry-level vehicle similar to that of the company's subcompacts, said assistant design manager John Sodano of the Chrysler Pacifica product design center near San Diego, where the Pronto was built.

``Painting is one of the expensive processes in the car assembly process,'' he said at the auto show. ``Eliminating that gave us the flexibility to add other features that make the car attractive while keeping the cost affordable.''

The Pronto concept includes textured, matte-finish body panels made of acrylonitrile styrene acrylate thermoplastic with a single body color consistent with interior trim. The Pronto logo is molded into the plastic on a side panel. Other features include stand-alone bumpers on each side of the front and rear, a roll-back fabric roof and a hatchback storage area.

The type of resin used in the car could vary, depending on cost and recyclability, Sodano said. For auto show purposes, the concept car was made from a steel body covered with ASA. Chrysler molded the plastic parts in-house, Sodano said.

Setting up a paint shop on a car assembly line is an expensive proposition. Typical paint shops include such capital-intensive equipment as stainless-steel pumping stations, air filtration systems and a paint removal system, said Frank Desostoa, marketing director for BASF's original equipment manufacturer coatings division.

Ford Motor Co. recently added a paint shop at its Lorain, Ohio, facility that cost $250 million. Spokeswoman Cheryl Eberwein estimated that a paint shop typically tallies as much as 30 percent of the cost of building a new assembly plant.

While Ford has not added molded-in color to its body panels, the company has eliminated the painting process by using in-mold decoration. The process involves using decorated, multilayer film applied to a thermoformed plastic such as ABS or polycarbonate.

Ford, which has used the process with interior trim, has been taking a look at exterior vehicle applications as a cost-reduction measure, said Dale Moore, manager of advanced injection molding for Ford's automotive components division. In-mold decoration recently has been used for grilles on the Ford Fiesta in Europe and on exterior Mustang components, which Moore said he could not disclose.

``We haven't been able to use molded plastic to simulate metallic colors,'' Moore said. ``Metal flakes do not disperse well in plastics.''

Still, molded-in color is used for bumper fascias on the Dodge Neon. The fascia features color-molded BexloyW, an ionomer resin in the olefin family made by DuPont Co. Terrance Cressy of DuPont said the car industry could be headed in that direction.

``On the one hand, molded-in body panels are a little rugged in appearance,'' Cressy said. ``But on the other hand, it's much less expensive than using paint, it's resistant to scratches and it's weatherproof. Chrysler could be on to something.''

Chrysler designer Sodano thinks so, even if the Pronto never sees the light of a showroom.

``We wanted to get a head start on molded-in plastics before the next century,'' he said. ``It could be a horse race to come out with a color-molded product. If so, we'd like to think of ourselves as being there first.''