DETROIT — Although most U.S. drivers might never see it, the world's first all-plastic car is due to take to the road by 2001.
The four-door sedan, called the Paradigm, initially will be sold in China under a joint venture between the car's designer, Automotive Design & Composites Ltd. of San Antonio and Chinese carmaker Huatong Motors of Deyang, China.
Automotive Design also plans to sell the car in Mexico and developing nations of Central and South America by 2001, said Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Michael Van Steenburg. The company is negotiating with distributors to market the cars in Costa Rica and Peru, among other sites, he said.
The low-volume vehicle, with a thermoformed body made of coextruded acrylic styrene acrylonitrile and ABS sheet, befits its name: It shifts the paradigm away from long-held perceptions about the limitations of plastics as structural pieces, Van Steenburg said.
``Plastics [for body panels] is tailor-made for countries that want low-cost, low-emission vehicles,'' Van Steenburg said. ``We're exploring a market niche that most automakers aren't pursuing and moving into countries where we won't generally compete'' with those firms.
Automotive Design, with help from federal and local funding, will invest about $26 million to open a thermoforming and assembly plant in San Antonio. The 160,000-square-foot facility, scheduled to open by January, will include a vacuum forming line to shape the plastic sheets. The firm will hire 200-300 people for the plant, said President James Kimbrough.
The venture, announced March 2 during the SAE International Congress and Exposition in Detroit, is one of a number of recent, well-publicized experiments with plastic body panels. DaimlerChrysler Corp., working with a team of eight suppliers, is attempting to make a plastic-bodied car for both the U.S. and European markets.
Oslo, Norway-based carmaker Pivco Industries AS is developing a rotomolded plastic car, called the TH!NK. Ford Motor Co. bought a majority share of Pivco in January. But neither Ford nor DaimlerChrysler have announced plans to put a plastic car into production. Current plastic-skinned cars on the road, including Saturn Corp. models, contain an underbelly of metal to absorb side impact.
Van Steenburg said the Paradigm meets federal, 40-mph crash-test standards even though it will not be sold in this country. However, those results are based on computer data; no physical tests have been performed.
Plastic body panels will continue their progress, said Tony Bernardo, automotive business director with BASF Corp., based in Mount Olive, N.J. BASF, working through its automotive center in Wyandotte, Mich., provided the material for the Paradigm.
Key drivers are dramatic cost reductions, primarily from using in-mold color to eliminate painting, and weight savings that affect fuel emissions, he said. Many countries, including the United States, are expected to introduce more-stringent emissions laws soon, he said.
``I think you'll see quite a few plastic body panels in production by 2001,'' Bernardo said. ``The technology is here and the need is growing.''
Automotive Design, a 12-person firm with about $3 million in sales, is betting its future on that projection. The design company, calling itself a virtual carmaker, will license the vehicle to distributors and take a percentage of Paradigm's sales, Van Steenburg said.
Spartech Corp. of Clayton, Mo., will supply the coextruded sheet to Automotive Design's proposed San Antonio plant, which will be in an aircraft hangar on a soon-to-be-closed military base, Kimbrough said.
The company initially will ship the panels to a new, Huatong-run plant in Deyang that will open by December.
The Chinese government and the carmaker are investing about $100 million in that facility, Van Steenburg said. The joint-venture plant will be called the Sinoamerican Motor Corp.
The Chinese plant will include nine coextrusion and 21 vacuum forming lines, Van Steenburg said. By the end of next year, Automotive Design plans to shift the molding work to the Deyang plant, Van Steenburg said.
``We have to take the time first to train [Huatong workers] in the black art of plastics,'' he said. ``Once we do that, we can focus on other opportunities in San Antonio.''
The company is setting up a supplier campus with China, with about 30 companies providing parts for the car on the same manufacturing site.
Production of the car in China is expected to ramp up from 5,000 vehicles sold in 2000 to as many as 30,000 cars by 2003. The cars will cost about $12,000, Van Steenburg said. The Deyang plant will have the capacity to make as many as 60,000 cars annually.
The five-passenger car will weigh less than 2,000 pounds, compared to about 3,800 pounds for a similar-sized, steel-shelled vehicle, he said.
Van Steenburg likened the process of making the panels to making fiberglass boat hulls. Each coextruded sheet consists of a thin, top layer of polymethyl methacrylate for gloss and scratch resistance; a middle layer of acrylic styrene acrylonitrile; and a bottom layer of ABS that contains as much as 40-60 percent recycled content taken from the trimmed sheets.
The PMMA/ASA/ABS sheet is vacuum formed and covered with a fiberglass, stitch-bonded fabric cloth. Another, single-layer ABS sheet is sealed to the top of the fabric. A vacuum evacuates air from the the sheets and pulls the resin into the fiberglass fabric.
The Paradigm's chassis will be made by pultruding glass-reinforced polyester, Van Steenburg said. The chassis will weigh only 138 pounds.
The 15-foot-long car will record about 50 miles per gallon of fuel in highway driving, he said.
The company has discussed using the Paradigm for a taxicab or police car in Latin American countries, Van Steenburg said. It also is marketing a plastic-bodied, all-terrain vehicle called the Baja.