Europeans are used to seeing tiny cars zipping around their cities. Now, an Asian challenger wants to add a new, plastic-bodied vehicle to the mix.
Mycar is just 8½ feet long and 5 feet high. The two-seater is made of ABS plastic panels and metal parts. It can hit 28 miles per hour, and hopes to take market share from France's Aixam, which holds 40 percent of the microcar market in Europe. What is mycar's secret weapon?
``Isn't it nice-looking?'' said Sin Ling Chung, gazing fondly at the little yellow roadster.
It should be. Guigiaro Design of Italy is responsible for mycar's trendy look. Guigiaro's other design projects range from bottles for Sanpelligrino water to train cars for Alstom.
Of course, looks aren't the only thing mycar has going for it, according to Chung, general manager of Innovech International Ltd., the Hong Kong company developing and manufacturing mycar.
``We have a cost advantage compared to our competitors,'' she said in a Nov. 21 interview at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, whose design school has been involved with the project since it began three years ago.
Innovech aims to sell the little cars for around US$7,600 at current exchange rates, said Chung. Competitors' cars sell for about $10,000-$14,000, she said.
Mycar will be able to beat competitors on price because it will source materials and parts in China and be manufactured there, Chung said.
``This is not a very sophisticated car,'' she acknowledged. ``It has 20 injection molded plastic panels for the interior and exterior, and metal stampings for the engine.''
She said Innovech currently is using ABS resins for all the plastic parts and has not specified a materials supplier.
Chung noted that since the maximum speed of microcars in Europe is kept under 28 mph, regulations there also require the maximum weight of such a car to be less than 772 pounds.
So, ``choosing ABS is a very logical choice,'' she said, noting that the top two microcar manufacturers - Axiam and MicroCar from France - also use ABS for their internal and external car panels.
``The only challenge we face,'' she added, ``is that the traditional car industry in China uses metal as the body panel and not many of them use plastic. However, many motorcycle manufacturers are very experienced with plastic bodies.''
As regards injection molding vs. thermoforming as the process to make the parts, Chung said: ``Since our car is not yet in production, we will keep this option open.
However, both methods are under consideration depending on the production quantity and tooling cost.''
Chung said two manufacturing groups under the management of Innovech's shareholders - Kingdom Fine Metal and Jingmei Group, which specializes in surface-finishing plastic components and electro-plated products - will help to manage the critical tooling.
``There may also be many other small toolmakers for various parts and components in China,'' she said.
The firm's sourcing options will benefit from Hong Kong being next door to southeast China's Guangdong province, which features one of the highest concentrations of plastics manufacturers in the world.
But Innovech has rigorous requirements for the company it will chose to manufacture mycar. The Chinese manufacturer must be able to help Innovech develop future models, and also have very good quality control, said Chung.
``And the international mind-set must be there,'' she added.
Mycar is likely to launch in Italy, and Innovech will focus on Italy, France, Spain and Germany as key markets, said Innovech Chairman Peter Sun. The company will start the approval process in Europe in mid-2006.
They initially will focus on just one area of Italy as a test market, Sun said. The first customers may be friends and acquaintances who can offer feedback on the performance and design.
``We want to be step-by-step, to make sure this model is well-received,'' he said.
The standard model will be yellow with a gray interior. Different colors will be offered as options, said Chung.
The European market for microcars hit 300,000 units last year, but Innovech doesn't have grand plans for mycar for the first few years.
In the first year, Innovech plans to produce just 1,000 or 2,000 units, ramping up to 5,000 in about three years. Several prototypes already exist, and Chung said mass production will start in the fourth quarter of 2006, if all goes according to plan.
Innovech already has contacted major European microcar distributors, she noted. ``Most are very happy to distribute it,'' she claimed.
Innovech expects to start with 100 distributors, eventually doubling that number.
Chung and Sun also made the rounds in the United States a few months ago, meeting with companies interested in using mycar as a delivery vehicle and the like.
The mycar story began in 2002 as a joint project between the Hong Kong Polytechnic University design school and Italy's Milan School of Design. The Hong Kong government saw an opportunity to promote Hong Kong as a center of design innovation. It provided US$258 million as seed money to commercialize mycar.
The major investors in Innovech now are Peter Sun and Raymond Chan.
The two men complement each other, at least as far as mycar's needs are concerned. Chan is founder and president of Jingmei Group, which is based in Hong Kong and has manufacturing operations in China.
Sun, besides being president of Innovech, is chairman of Kingdom Group, which specializes in metal stampings.
Chung, whose background includes a stint as a venture capitalist, is a minor investor.
``At this stage,'' she said, ``we are seeking venture capital firms and strategic partners to invest into the venture. We met a couple of venture capitalists from the United States, and they are very interested.''
Webb is the Beijing-based staff reporter for Automotive News, a sister publication to Plastics News.