CAN CAR BUFFS FIND ROMANCE IN COZY COUPE?

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A top Chrysler Corp. official envisions a blow molded car ``created like a Clorox bottle.''

If consumers could forgo high-gloss paint jobs, automakers might be able to whack about one-fourth off the price of a car by using plastics with molded-in color. With that kind of cost cutting in mind, Robert Lutz, Chrysler's vice chairman, said the automaker is researching just such an idea.

``You could take 25 percent of the list price of an automobile out if you were able to mold and color like plastic toys,'' Lutz said in a recent interview with Automotive News, a sister publication to Plastics News. ``So, a $16,000 car you can get down to $12,000, and all the customer really has to give up is the shiny paint.''

That's a concept worth pursuing, Lutz emphasized.

``We want to gain experience with this plastic body molding technology where we can essentially do a whole body in one shot out of the mold,'' Lutz said.

As the technology advances, Lutz envisions a blow molded car ``created like a Clorox bottle.''

While Lutz speculated on what could be, he emphasized that Chrysler is nowhere near any kind of production decision.

``It's a research project at this point,'' Lutz said.

At the center of the research is Chrysler's China concept vehicle, an 800-cc, two-cylinder vehicle that the company unveiled at the Chrysler Technology Center in October. The automaker has not decided yet whether to produce the car.

Chrysler also revealed its interest in molded-in color with its Plymouth Pronto concept car. Unveiled in January at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, the small, four-passenger sedan will be used to explore what Chrysler can do with plastic body panels and molded-in color. The concept, though, had a steel body.

If a car had a plastic body with molded-in color, the need for painting at the assembly plant would be eliminated. However, unpainted plastic surfaces currently do not match the gloss of existing factory paint jobs.

``If you think about the implications of that, if it's a good molding color and you can get the customer at that end of the market away from the need to have glossy paint, it becomes a gigantic plastic toy that has an engine and a transmission and that you can sit in and drive,'' Lutz said. ``And that technology is worth pursuing.''

An executive from a leading plastics firm said work is needed to refine the right material for the application.

``It's going to take some development,'' said the executive, who asked to remain anonymous. ``What's going to happen on a 120 day in Phoenix? To achieve this goal, a new material must be developed. But it is possible.''

Lutz said the concept might be practical some day for a sports-utility-looking vehicle that is permanently open.

``You just let the rain pour in and it's got drain holes in the bottom,'' Lutz said.

Or it could be applied to a very small, 1.4-liter sports roadster, for example, that could be molded in two halves and bonded together, he said.

About 25 percent of the variable cost of a modern automobile has to do with preparing the metal for paint and then actually painting it, Lutz said.

Meeting air-quality standards for paint shops also has increased the cost and complexity of getting a durable color coating on an automobile, he said.

Chrysler would work with a consortium of specialist suppliers when pushing new technology, Lutz said.

``We'll assemble them almost like a platform team, but we call it a virtual enterprise that we combine and orchestrate to drive this technology,'' Lutz said.