DETROIT — Chrysler Corp. indicated last week that it may develop the first production car in North America featuring a body structure made of thermoplastics.
The world's No. 3 carmaker expects to produce commercially one of four body types showcased in its prototype concept cars introduced since January 1997, said Chrysler design director K. Neil Walling.
While no definite time frame has been set, the Auburn Hills, Mich., company hopes to have a car with a plastic body on the road between 2003 and 2007, said Kenneth Mack, executive engineer for program management at Chrysler's Liberty & Technical Affairs development group, based in Madison Heights, Mich.
To the surprise of many onlookers, Chrysler rolled out two high-profile, all-plastic concept cars last week at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
One, called the Plymouth Pronto Spyder, was a souped-up, exotic sports car with a body structure made entirely of glass-reinforced PET. The car made its debut Jan. 4.
The other, the Dodge Intrepid ESX2, was a sleek, low-emission variant on Chrysler's family sedan with a PET body backed by tubular aluminum. That hybrid vehicle, powered both by battery pack and diesel engine, was positioned as Chrysler's car of the future during a Jan. 6 news conference at the show.
With those introductions, Chrysler became the only auto company worldwide to pin its future on the ability of molded plastic to support the exterior frame of a high-volume car. The company plans to use thermoplastic bodies to slash production costs and reduce emissions by cutting vehicle weight.
Chrysler is banking that its models will not have to be painted, saving as much as $350 million to set up and run a paint shop at a plant, Walling said. In-mold color is used on all but one of the show cars.
The lightweight PET parts, as much as half the weight of steel panels, help Chrysler meet impending emissions requirements. According to the Southfield, Mich.-based U.S. Council for Automotive Research, every 10 pounds saved on a vehicle equates to 6 percent greater fuel efficiency.
``If the concept works, we'll have grabbed the ethereal golden ring from an economic and environmental standpoint,'' Walling said. ``It's something we believe is very possible to do now with the technology available. If we didn't think it would work, we would not have invested the time and money that we already have.''
The company has now showcased four all-plastic concept cars within the past year, at an estimated cost of more than $1 million to develop each vehicle design, according to industry experts.
Unlike other cars with plastic body skins, such as General Motors Corp.'s Saturn models and Chevrolet Corvette, Chrysler's futuristic bodies are not merely cosmetic panels welded to a steel substrate. Instead, the plastic shells also act as structural pieces.
Chrysler's first all-plastic concept car — a prototype vehicle that is not in production — was introduced a year ago at the auto show. That rough-looking, matte-finish vehicle, the Plymouth Pronto, was designed for the entry-level market.
In September, the carmaker introduced a prototype PET-composite car targeted for Third World countries. The Composite Concept Vehicle, or CCV, is undergoing tests for safety and durability at Chrysler Liberty.
The two models Chrysler introduced last week raise the level of visibility for plastic car bodies, said Ray Dugas, automotive group sales director for Summit, N.J.-based Ticona, the company developing the patented PET resin for Chrysler.
Now, rival material suppliers cannot say that plastic bodies only work for developing nations or with entry-level buyers, Dugas said.
``This clearly would be the most visible application for plastics ever to happen in the auto industry,'' he said from his Auburn Hills, Mich., office. ``When we started the program with Chrysler, we wondered whether this could be done. Now, the attitude is `what else can we do?'''
The development also could spark a new battle among both resin and equipment suppliers. Montell Polyolefins automotive division in Troy, Mich., also is working with Chrysler to develop a suitable body material made of thermoplastic olefin compounds.
Ticona has developed a PET composite that has been through at least seven iterations since the project was announced, said Ticona program director Stephen Leyrer. The company has recast the formulation to make the material more shatter-resistant and thermally stable to avoid discoloration.
The recyclable PET material costs $1.50 a pound, Leyrer said.
``With the CCV, the main advantage was a product that could be recycled,'' Leyrer said. ``Now, we're looking at what I'd call a space-age, high-tech composite material that gets tremendous performance at an affordable price. Chrysler has taken a bold step, and it's put us light-years ahead in material development.''
Ticona plans to introduce a commercially available version of the PET material based on the same technology. It will be available in February under Ticona's Impet line, Leyrer said.
Supplier Husky Injection Molding Systems Ltd. of Bolton, Ontario, is designing the largest injection press made for North America as part of the Chrysler project, said Trefor Jones, Husky general manager for the Detroit region. The company wants to build a two-platen press with a clamping force of 8,000-9,000 tons, he said.
``Now that Chrysler has developed other applications for plastic body panels, we need to go back and determine the [press] requirements,'' Jones said. ``It's phenomenal how quickly we've come. We started with an idea for a car that could replace a bicycle in a Third World country and watched it evolve into practically anything.''
That press could be slated for use at Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Cascade Engineered Products Inc. The firm, a project supervisor for the CCV development team, molded the initial CCV prototypes, which used four 160-ton body sections, on two 4,500-ton presses running in tandem.
Other carmakers have not followed in Chrysler's step. Neither GM, which uses some composite parts for its EV1 electric vehicle, nor Ford Motor Co. would comment on their interest in plastic car bodies.
Chrysler's plastic panels have passed a variety of impact tests, including dropping a steel ball from as high as 14 feet, according to Tom Moore, Chrysler Liberty & Technical Affairs general manager. The CCV also successfully went through a tortuous road course over rough terrain similar to that in China or India, Mack added.
But the automaker cannot say whether the concept will work until a car is in production, Moore said.
Industry observers were surprised by Chrysler's initiatives. In 1995, Chrysler Vice President of vehicle engineering Francois Castaing had criticized the use of plastics as being too costly for vehicles.
Castaing, who is retiring, attended one of the Chrysler plastic-car presentations at the auto show and was asked about those comments.
``I really wanted to get the attention of the plastics industry,'' Castaing said. ``We knew that plastics at the time was not what we wanted because of its higher material costs. But when we worked with our partners to rethink how plastics could be used, it changed our minds.''