General Motors Corp. plans to put plastic composite body panels on a new, sleek roadster it wants to build, but suppliers are concerned that the project could lose them money.
The Detroit-based carmaker has decided to produce the Cadillac Evoq, a sports car that it first displayed in January as a concept vehicle at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, according to three supplier sources and one carmaker source familiar with the project.
The Evoq is scheduled for production in the 2003 model year and will be assembled at GM's Bowling Green, Ky., plant, where its Chevrolet Corvette is produced, sources said.
A GM spokeswoman said the company could not comment on production plans for the vehicle.
The hardtop convertible is important to GM. The automaker wants to establish a signature car in the niche sports-car market, similar to what DaimlerChrysler AG has done with its Dodge Viper and Plymouth Prowler. At the auto show, the company envisioned its souped-up Cadillac as the future of the brand's design.
The vehicle also is significant for the growth of sheet molding compound, which is under consideration for the project. While Ford Motor Co. has been the leader in recent years in advancing SMC, GM has shifted in some cases to other materials, according to sources.
A recent example was the switch by GM to reaction injection molded polyurethane on sport-side fenders for its 1999 model GMT800 pickup trucks, which include the GMC Sierra and Chevrolet Silverado. Fenders for previous truck models had been compression molded in SMC.
``You want GM to use SMC on any vehicle, regardless of volume,'' said Phil Sarnacke, Midland, Mich.-based business development manager with TownsendTarnell Inc., a Houston consulting company. ``It would enhance the image of the material to be on the Evoq. The next time around, GM might decide to use it on another program.''
The carmaker used about 22 million pounds of SMC parts during the 1999 model year, according to figures from the Troy, Mich.-based Automotive Composites Alliance. In total, about 215.4 million pounds of composites were used in North American vehicles in the 1999 model year.
In May, GM put out a request for quotes asking thermoset molders to bid on the parts, according to three supplier sources. The first bids are due back at GM around Labor Day.
The panels include most of the exterior pieces of the car, similar to what is found on the Corvette.
The bids then must be examined by GM's engineering review teams before a second round of quotes is likely to go out, supplier sources said.
The carmaker originally considered using steel or lightweight aluminum for the low-volume Evoq, sources said.
But tooling costs would have been more than 30 percent higher for metal panels, sources said. The Evoq's uniquely angled shapes also befit more-flexible molded plastic, sources said.
Yet, suppliers are uncertain how to proceed on the bid request. The design and engineering costs for the panels would be demanding. GM has told suppliers that it planned to produce as many as 4,500 Evoq models annually, and volumes could slide to 2,500 vehicles for its first production year, sources said.
The low volumes might not be enough to support the upfront work, said one supplier. ``We'll need to spend a lot of time on it to make a true commitment,'' the supplier said.
GM's tough pricing practices and its demands for continuous cost reductions make the project more challenging, several sources said.
On top of that, GM's Bowling Green plant is known for making tough demands on suppliers for the Corvette's body panels. A key issue is consistently perfect surface finishes, sources said.
Most suppliers said that does not bother them. ``[Corvettes] sell for over $50,000, so they've got to have quality surface finishes,'' said one supplier.
Yet, the same expectations for the Evoq — which suppliers said could be priced at more than $70,000 — could drive costs higher, sources said.
Two suppliers said they planned to bid on the project. But one added that the company would attempt to include other future GM projects on its bid for the Evoq. That piggybacking would help buffer the high costs, the supplier said.
Another supplier said it would consider the lowest-cost method of making Evoq panels. That could include resin transfer molding instead of more-capital-intensive compression molding, the source said.
The suppliers emphasized that they wanted to work with GM. They just need to find ways to make the project be of benefit, they said.
``We don't see the Evoq going to aluminum, and we're glad for that,'' a supplier said. ``It's hard to match what we can do in composites.''