Environment-minded Jeep Wrangler customers may favor rigs covered by recyclable plastic, a feature selected hard-topped 2001 models will have, but DaimlerChrysler AG's hopes of making entire vehicle bodies from the dull-finished material could be dashed, some at local dealerships say.
The Toledo Jeep Assembly Plant will make up to 5,000 Wranglers a year, starting with the 2001 model year, with white thermoplastic hardtops to help determine whether other auto-body parts - hoods, fenders, doors - can be made from a process billed as an low-cost, lightweight alternative to steel. The plant annually makes about 90,000 Wranglers.
Color can be added to the hardtops when the plastic is molded, eliminating costs and pollution associated with factory paint shops, and the lightweight material helps boost fuel efficiency, said DaimlerChrysler spokesman Scott Fosgard.
"If it works, it will revolutionize the way cars and trucks are made," he said. "Every other alternative to steel is much more expensive."
The automaker, Mr. Fosgard added, must overcome two hurdles before making entire vehicles from thermoplastic: safety and appearance. Early crash testing indicates the plastic is as safe as or safer than steel, but whether customers will accept vehicles made with a matte, unpainted material is another question, he said.
Wranglers already come with matte-finished hardtops made from a different plastic, and their typically environment-conscious owners will welcome a recyclable alternative, said Mark Campbell, general sales manager for Bowling Green Jeep Lincoln Mercury. He plans to promote the new hardtops.
"It's a good selling point," he said.
All Wranglers have roll bars that are designed to support the vehicle's weight if it tips over, so the roof does not need to be very strong. Company officials said the new roofs would be just as safe as existing roofs.
But taking thermoplastic body parts beyond Wrangler roofs might cause problems for safety-minded customers, Mr. Campbell said. Others questioned whether customers will accept a flat finish.
Some DeLorean owners had their 1980s stainless-steel gems painted because they didn't like the finish, said Chuck Gildenmeister, general manager of Gildenmeister Motor Co. in Bellevue, which sells Jeeps.
"It just didn't have the sheen of your typical car finish," he said.
Another challenge will be making plastic auto-body parts with a perfect finish without paint, said David Cole, director of the Center for the Study of Automotive Trans portation at the University of Michigan.
Customers, he said, have accepted plastic-paneled Chevrolet Corvettes for years, and they like Saturn's composite doors, but parts on those models are painted.