SUMMIT POINT, W. Va. -- Your next car just might have a body made of the same plastics used in beverage bottles, get 80 miles to a gallon of fuel and feature a humidor to keep your stash of cigars fresh.
These are some of the early 21st-century technologies demonstrated by Chrysler Corp. "concept" cars at the Summit Point Raceway track here.
While the vehicles didn't set any lap records, Chrysler officials say there is no question that the auto industry is in a competitive race to bring new technologies to market.
New approaches are needed to hold the line on car prices while boosting fuel economy, reducing emissions and adding pizzazz, said Scott Fosgard, a spokesman for Chrysler's design and engineering department.
Chrysler is hoping that flair and affordability can go hand in hand.
With this in mind, engineers came up with the Plymouth Pronto Spyder, a plastic-body sports car.
David Smith, a senior designer with Chrysler, said the use of plastic gives the company the opportunity to produce a two-seater comparable to exotic European sports cars for half the money.
"By taking some of the cost out of the body," he said, "it allows engineers to spend more on other parts and to improve the drive train."
"Our goal is to get the price down to $20,000," Fosgard said of the five-speed roadster powered by a 225-horsepower supercharged four-cylinder engine mounted behind the driver's seat. "This would be about half the price of the Porsche Boxster."
Another concept car demonstrated at the track was the Jeep Jeepster, a vehicle that looks like a cross between the military's Humvee and a dune buggy.
It was the result of a "what if" exercise, according to Michael Moore, the chief Jeep designer. "What if you could have the power and the excitement of a sports car coupled with the capability and rugged go-anywhere nature of a Jeep Wrangler?"
And for those to whom money is no object, there's the Chrysler Chronos, "the ultimate luxury sedan for those who like to drive vs. having a chauffeur," said Smith.
"The price could be considerable," said Fosgard, "$150,000, maybe $200,000. But, there are some within the company who think there would be a line of buyers at any price if we go into production on the Chronos."
The four-door sports sedan sports a humidor, big enough for about a dozen cigars, built into the console between the two hand-sewn leather front seats.
Light up and take off
"If you can afford this car, obviously you have arrived," said Smith. He laughed and added: "Light up a cigar and enjoy it."
More basic transportation is offered in the Dodge Intrepid ESX2, a full-size sedan that has the potential of achieving 80 miles per gallon while meeting future emission requirements.
That trick is the result of what Chrysler calls a mild hybrid approach -- two engines tucked under the hood.
The main power source is a 75-horsepower, three-cylinder diesel engine. When additional acceleration is needed, such as when passing or moving onto an expressway, the car gets an extra kick from a 20-horsepower electric motor.
It's no speedster. It was clocked at 12 seconds in the 0 to 60 miles-per-hour test. "We hope to get that down to 10," said Robert E. Lawrie, a senior engineer of hybrid electric vehicles.
As does the Spyder sports car, the ESX2 has a plastic body that weighs half as much as steel and costs 20 percent less.
"It is made of six pieces that are glued together," said Steve Speth, manager of Chrysler hybrid electric vehicle program.
There are other savings. The color would be blended into the body parts as they are made, the same as plastic laundry detergent containers, and would eliminate the need for paint shops that cost upward of $150 million.
But a few problems remain before assembly plants close their paint shops. First, the public has to be convinced that plastic cars are as safe as those with metal bodies.
"It will take some educating and some time," said Speth. "But in the long run we think people will buy them. Like anything new, it has to sink in."
The second problem has to do with the finish on the car. Plastic produces a mat or satin finish "and people like shiny cars," said Speth. "We are still looking for ways to make the car shiny without painting."
But the biggest challenge, he concedes, is making the car affordable.
Price creep is downward
As things stand now, the ESX2 would cost $30,000. While that's down from an original cost of $80,000, "we have got to get it down to $20,000, or we are not going to sell the 250,000 units needed for mass production," Speth said. "We think we can do this by 2003."
Some of the other vehicles could make it to auto showrooms earlier.
"If we get the green light from management today, we could be in production in three years" with the Spyder, Jeepster and Chronos, Fosgard said. But, he said, because each would have limited consumer appeal and production runs of only about 20,000 units, it would be unlikely that all three would make it to dealer showrooms.
In some cases, Fosgard said, only certain elements of a concept car will reach the production stage.
Last week Chrysler announced that it had entered into an agreement with Husky Injection Molding Systems of Bolton, Ontario, to build a research and development center that will be able to mold a four- to 12-piece car body in plastic.
The plant is scheduled to be operational by July 1999.
"This is a major step toward inventing a new way of manufacturing automobiles," said Larry Oswald, executive engineer, Advanced Body Engineering. "We'll be doing manufacturing tests with actual Chrysler car and truck parts and will be using the test results to determine when and if we'll go into production with this technology."
Pub Date: 6/08/98