CHICAGO — A radically new ``minicar'' for the European and South American markets pushes the limits of automotive plastics by using more thermoplastic olefins, pound for pound, than possibly any other vehicle on the road.
The Ka model from Ford Motor Co. offers both revolutionary design touches and an eye-opening use of olefinic material for exterior and interior body components. The subcompact vehicle was displayed by Montell Polyolefins at NPE 1997, held June 16-20 in Chicago.
For instance, few other vehicles can boast an all-TPO front bumper system that wraps itself around the front wheel base in a fetal position. Few other vehicles have a TPO instrument panel injection molded as an orblike piece that juts on a prominent incline toward the driver and features a molded, oval-shaped clock.
Even with those post-modern styling details, it is the vehicle's subtle but enormous use of thermoplastics that drew attention at the worldwide plastics show. The Ka contains close to 62 pounds of plastic, which is used on virtually every square foot of the economy-class vehicle.
Comparatively, the Ford Expedition sports utility vehicle — which dwarfs the Ka in size and beefiness — uses only about 48 pounds of plastics, said Montell senior marketing manager William Windscheif of the company's Troy, Mich.-based Automotive Business Group. Montell officials consider the Ka to contain more plastics per size of vehicle than any car in production.
``No other vehicle that I'm aware of uses that much plastic,'' Windscheif said. ``It's not necessarily where olefins are used on this vehicle that's important but the sheer amount of [the material]. It's a real breakthrough both from a company and an industry standpoint.''
Until now, the Ka seldom has been seen in North America. In September, Ford launched its ``sub-b'' compact car throughout Europe when it began production at its Valencia, Spain, plant.
During the first quarter of this year, Ka production also began at Ford's Taboao plant in SÃo Paolo, Brazil. The car now is sold in Brazil and Argentina. The minicar, which also is sold in Hong Kong, now can be found in 30 overseas markets. Ford expects to sell more than 200,000 Ka's during 1997, said public affairs director Kathryn Blackwell of Ford's small and medium car vehicle center.
The Dearborn, Mich., carmaker launched the featherweight vehicle overseas mainly as a response to steep gasoline prices, Blackwell said. In addition, Europe's tight parking spaces and narrow traffic lanes contributed to the need for a scaled-down vehicle, she said.
``If gas prices in Europe were $1.25 a gallon like they are in the states, you'd never see this vehicle built,'' Blackwell said. ``But because fuel costs are at a premium there, we needed a car that responded to that. They could be why so much plastic went into it.''
The car, first unveiled at the Geneva, Switzerland, Motor Show in 1994, is based partly on the Ford Fiesta. However, the vehicle features some singular details, such as a molded-in-color thermoplastic bumper system and four swiveling, spherical air vents on the interior.
Virtually every part contains either polypropylene or TPO material. The use of recyclable PP includes the bumper's energy- absorption system, the window cowl grille and cover assembly, front and rear quarter trim, loudspeaker grille and seat belt holders.
TPO is used for the bumper fascias, instrument panel, seat back and steering column shroud, among other parts.
The door panels feature one of the few uses of steel on the vehicle and are supported by a polypropylene substrate.
All the resin was provided by Montell, which is based in Hoofddorp, the Netherlands. The parts were molded by a variety of European and South American suppliers, said Montell senior account manager Ami El Agizy.
The two-door hatchback is the smallest car produced by Ford in Europe, Blackwell said. The two-door, four-seat hatchback could be the forerunner of other subcompact vehicles, she said.
``It's definitely an entry-level model in both Europe and South America,'' Blackwell said. ``But we've gotten a lot of positive publicity for it. It's certainly something to consider for future models.''