Chrysler Corp. unveiled its car of the future in early January at the North American International Auto Show:
From the stage wings, out came a preschooler pedaling a toy car.
That stab at humor turned serious when Chrysler introduced its concept of a Dodge Intrepid sedan with a structural plastic body. In contrast to the old metal-and-chrome road warriors, Chrysler now dreams of producing an all-plastic car shell in the next decade.
While auto enthusiasts might object, that idea could galvanize a sometimes testy marriage between the plastics industry and automakers. After all, plastics has a long history in vehicles.
Though it's been tried, plastics has made few strides into car bodies. General Motors Corp.'s Pontiac Fiero, which had a plastic body lined with steel sheet, ceased production in 1988, four years after its introduction; nothing replaced it.
Then, sheet molding compound made headlines on GM's minivan models starting in 1989. But for reasons unexplained—though the material's less-than-perfect surface quality and high tooling costs probably contributed—the vans switched to steel in 1996. SMC still is used on scattered car and truck exterior parts.
If Chrysler is successful, the next-generation car could include a plastic body with no steel support. Chrysler thinks it will save millions in production costs, helping it stay competitive by putting a lid on sticker prices.
The Big Three also are feeling heat from environmentalists. Following Japan's lead, stricter U.S. emissions standards could be imminent. By cutting costs, Chrysler believes it can add more-sophisticated, fuel-efficient engines without raising the price to stratospheric levels.
Of course, there's a reason you don't hear every carmaker extolling plastic cars. No one's certain the idea will fly with the public and government safety groups. Carmakers still wonder whether the material is strong enough to withstand side impacts. Plus, plastic show cars have a dull matte look, closer to a toy car than to a high-sheen sedan. Molded-in color techniques are trying to remedy that.
Possibly, it's a different era now. Larry Howell, executive director of GM's body and vehicle integration research department, said the industry is on the brink of big change. It's led to experimentation by every car company.
If plastics can work in car bodies, inroads into appliances and office furniture could follow. Despite the petitioning for plastics, metal dominates in dishwashers and desk frames.
The plastics industry still must convince those who link plastics with fragile uses like Barbie dolls and credit cards. Chrysler has opened the door another crack.
Pryweller is Plastics News' Detroit-based staff reporter.