DETROIT — DaimlerChrysler AG is out to prove its early interest in plastic auto bodies was no temporary fling.
With two of its three concept vehicles debuting at the North American International Auto Show featuring composite, molded-in-color bodies, the German-American company is looking to push the prospect even further.
"This is to keep the process going," said Sjoerd Dijkstra, senior communications manager for design and technologies for DaimlerChrysler.
Both the Jeep Willys and Chrysler Crossfire concept vehicles have carbon-fiber bodies over an aluminum frame that could be produced through injection molding. DaimlerChrysler already uses an 8,800-ton press at Husky Injection Molding Systems Ltd.'s Detroit Technical Center in Novi, Mich., to make Jeep Wrangler hardtops.
It has used the same press to make a composite body for its ESX concept cars, lightweight versions of the Dodge Intrepid. That project was part of an energy conservation effort with the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles.
Last year, DaimlerChrysler estimated it could build an ESX3 production model by 2004 that would hit 72 miles per gallon, priced for less than $30,000.
While the ESX program featured a plastic exterior for its weight and fuel savings, the Willys and Crossfire aim to prove the technology will work for a variety of other vehicle platforms, Dijkstra said.
The Willys is based on the World War II-era Jeeps, and designated for outdoor action. Designers wanted to show how the body and aluminum frame would stand up to off-road use, yet still be nimble, he said.
The Crossfire, meanwhile, is a sports car, requiring higher on-road performance standards and a top speed of 148 miles per hour.
"Will any of this year's [concept] collection make it to the street? You never know," said Trevor Creed, senior vice president of design for the firm, with corporate offices in Auburn Hills, Mich., and Stuttgart, Germany.
The plastic body still has some distance to go before production could begin, Dijkstra noted. Molded-in-color still cannot match the sheen of painted parts. Both the Willys and Crossfire are gray — the one color that designers have found will work well.
Plastic-body technology has a strong future, Dijkstra said, but it also needs more research.
"You cannot bring out a vehicle in 2005 and go back to the days of Henry Ford and say: `You can have any color you want, as long as it's gray.'"