DETROIT — Chrysler Corp. shocked the world in September 1997 when it announced plans to test the feasibility of making a car body encased entirely in plastic.
Now, DaimlerChrysler AG wants to shock the automaking public again. This time, the carmaker is out to prove that injection molded thermoplastic bodies are possible for larger, road-toughened vehicles, where a sturdy frame is a must.
The automaker has unleashed a prototype sport-utility vehicle, called the Jeep Commander, at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. The concept car, first shown Jan. 3, features a body made entirely of fiberglass.
But if the SUV ever goes into production, PET most likely will be substituted for the composite material, said Larry Oswald, executive engineer for body panels at Chrysler's Liberty & Technical Affairs development center in Madison Heights, Mich.
Fiberglass would not sustain the same side impact as PET, Oswald said. But it offered a quick means to build a prototype vehicle in time for the auto show, he added.
Either way, DaimlerChrysler is showcasing the car partly to offset myths about thermoplastic's limitations, Oswald said.
``Some suppliers still think that plastics can't be used for [structural] body panels,'' Oswald said. ``We're working on changing that thinking. Now we want to show they can be used for larger vehicles, not just in small cars.''
In a much-promoted experiment, DaimlerChrysler is testing the use of plastic as a lightweight alternative to steel bodies — and without sheets of steel positioned behind the plastic to absorb impact.
Currently, PET and a styrene-based olefinic alloy are being tested by DaimlerChrysler and a team of suppliers. Material suppliers Ticona GmbH and Montell Polyolefins have provided unending variants of their materials for the work, Oswald said.
The Jeep Commander is the fifth prototype car unveiled by Chrysler and DaimlerChrysler.
The upscale Jeep version is modeled partly on the 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee, but is 80 inches wide, more than seven inches wider than the Grand Cherokee.
Despite its size, it is fuel efficient. Chrysler, showcasing a line of advanced future powertrains at a news conference, has added a gasoline-powered fuel cell that allows the four-wheel-drive vehicle to run on electricity.