DETROIT - Chrysler Corp. plans to develop an all-plastic car body for the North American market within three years.
The automaker has not yet committed to production. But Chrysler moved closer to that goal last week by prodding a supplier to open an ambitious development center in Novi, Mich., in July 1999 - two years earlier than planned.
For Chrysler's use, Husky Injection Molding Systems Ltd. of Bolton, Ontario, will make one of the world's largest injection presses, a machine the size of a locomotive with a clamping force of 8,800 tons.
Chrysler has signed a four-year lease to use the machine to make plastic car-body parts for testing, said Larry Oswald, Chrysler's executive engineer for advanced body engineering.
Within that time, Chrysler will decide whether to purchase presses to make plastic car bodies, Oswald said. If that is the case, equipment will be used either at Chrysler assembly plants or by a major exterior-parts supplier, he said.
HALF THE WEIGHT
Chrysler would like to complete tests by 2001. That would make plastic a contender in the Big 3's effort to develop an 80-mpg mid-sized sedan by 2004.
The company's proposed all-plastic cars use four injection-molded body panels - two exterior and two interior - that pare vehicle weight to as little as half that of steel-skinned models. By eliminating paint and reducing parts, assembly plant startup costs can be cut by about two-thirds to as little as $300 million per plant, Chrysler has said.
CLUES FROM CONCEPTS
Chrysler's initial concept vehicles were targeted for low-cost, no-frills applications in emerging countries. Those car bodies, using molded-in color, had a rough-hewn, matte finish.
'What we're trying to do now is press the molding technology beyond Third World vehicles,' Oswald said.
Chrysler hinted at that during the Detroit auto show in January. The company paraded two concept cars - the Dodge Intrepid ESX2, a family sedan based on its Dodge Intrepid ESX; and the Plymouth Pronto Spyder, a sports car - that it said would have plastic bodies if they go into production.
Chrysler's cars would differ from other models covered with plastic, including General Motors' Saturn car line. Chrysler plans to eliminate the sheet of hanging metal under the skin. The proposed vehicles are made of high-impact, structural plastic using glass-reinforced polyethylene terephthalate, the plastic used in soft-drink bottles.