By on January 12, 2011

“Exterior vehicle parts that have been replaced with plastic materials include front-end modules, beams and brackets, trunk lids, deck lids, body panels and floor panels. More plastics are being used in air-bag containers, pedals and seat components. Plastics are applied to the powertrain in the air inlet manifolds, air ducts and resonators, chain tensioners and belt pulleys, oil pans and sumps, cylinder head covers, and mechanical torsion damper components. Some gears and pump components are also becoming more plastic-friendly.”

From “Plastics outperform metal in automotive applications,”

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27 Comments on “Quote Of The Day: It’s Plastic, It’s Fantastic...”

  • avatar

    Metal has become the new exotic material due to the ubiquitous application of plastic in so many consumer products.
    A smart phone with a metal case feels upscale and special even though plastic would suffice.
    In cars, the simulation of metal on various dash pieces plays to the ferrous appeal.

  • avatar

    The next posting should include Bjork singing with a Glass Armonica.

    As a repeat Saturn owner, I know how great plastics are.

  • avatar

    I’ve been designing things for a long time, and, believeme, steel is your friend. I don’t know how many times plastic has made inroads into a particular part – wheel covers, body panels, window regulators, bumpers, – only to be replaced quietly by steel parts a few years later.

    All those plastic body opanels made the Saturns overweight, over budget, and poorly detailed, especially the huge panel gaps.

    Plastics may not rust, but they shrink, swell, creep, crack, craze, deflect, degrade from UV light, and so on.


    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      But I know a few guys in the rust belt who bought the original GM “Dustbuster” minivans (particularly with the 3800) had the metal under-body parts undercoated and kept replacing mechanical parts that wore out just cause the suckers wouldn’t rust.  Drove them 300,000 miles just cause they liked having a vehicle that didn’t look like Swiss cheese in a few years.

    • 0 avatar

      One of my Saturns is over a decade old and still looks new.
      When they were originally designed back in the 1980s, yeah – GM did not end up with weight savings, but that was not the fault of plastic, but simply dated technology available at the time. Plastic is also not to be blamed for Saturn being over budget. Plastic is not to be blamed for your subjective opinion regarding how Saturns appeared. Complaints about panel gaps didn’t appear in auto reviews for years because the panel gaps in Saturns were designed around, painted around, and were not much greater than the panel gaps in most Detroit cars at that time. The idea that panel gaps widths were to be noticed, is rather new. Fenders were to be aligned correctly, but if panel gaps were such a big deal when Saturns first came out, then panel gaps should have been a big deal for all the auto makers, not just Saturn.

      Finally, a new Saturn-like auto shell would emply new plastics where panel gaps would not be an issue. Take a look at the newest cars on the road, and you can see where plastic panels do not have gaps at all.

      How long is a car to last? A decade or more? Look around and take a look at all the decade or older Saturns on the road. You may find it challenging because they do not look like old rustbuckets. They still look new.

      Thanks to plastics.

    • 0 avatar
      M 1

      My Buick is over half a century old and still looks new.
      Ok, granted some of the chrome looks like ass. But I bet most of us will look worse in 50 years.

    • 0 avatar

      Saturn panel gaps were large to allow for expansion of the plastic panels.  The gaps were way larger than any car of the era.  Funny, the other car that comes to mind for big gaps were Porsche 924/944s…

  • avatar

    One word: Plastic! Metal, ANY metal is the new black. I personally favor the machined look of the aluminum trim on the 1963-1964 Impala SS.

  • avatar

    I was always pleased to look at the metal dash on my ’66 Bug.  What was really cool is that it was painted the same color as the body, not silver or black.

  • avatar

    I ride the ‘L’ in Chicago to work everyday. I love the old train cars, they are all metal in the inside. Hopefully the new replacements that are coming will not use plastic in the inside.

  • avatar

    I don’t think I want a plastic-derived cylinder head. (j/k) On the subject, both of my parents owned ~2005 Saturn Ion’s. During the test drive, the salesman had them turn around with the wheel at full lock. These cars had the tightest turning radius of anything on the market, I believe. Later, my Dad totaled his by pulling out in front of a conversion van full of Amish. I believe the plastic car saved him serious injury.

  • avatar

    The Saturn was overweight because the plastic panels didn’t contribute anything to the strength of teh body. So there were steel reinforcemets all through the body to provide the strength. Take off the door skin and you’ll see what I mean.

    Door and panel gaps were an issue before the cars were released. Originally teh door gaps were designed to be the same as the steel bodies. But hot weather testing in Arizona showed that the gaps woukld decrease to the point where you could not open the doors. I remember a display of competitive cars at the GM Mona Lisa center with all the panel gaps measured and marked.

    I suppose a door gap large enough to through the cat through doesn’t really hurt anything, but i’s sure not the mark of a high quality car. A Honda Civic of the same vintage is instructive to look at for quality fits.

    Most cars today last over 10 years with no body or paint degradation at all. Sure, there are a few exceptions, but in Michigan you can look around and see pristine 10 year old cars everywhere.

    If plastic body oanels were so great, where are all the plastic cars? Saturn, GM vans, Fiero, they’ve all passed on.

    The 91 Caprice Clasic cars had plastic wheel covers that simulated stainless steel perfectly. They won teh plastic part of th year award. Unfortunately teh expansion/contraction of the plastic compared to the steel wheels caused the wheel covers t fall off. It was a big crisis. The solution? Tool up some stainless steel wheel covers that looked like stainless steel. That got the steel part of the year award in 1992.


    • 0 avatar

      Problem with these vehicles leading to their exit from the fleet was not with the panels per se, but rather what lay beneath and within…

      Hoaglund and Co. were crazy for the Mill-and-Drill body shop concept, but the hoped-for weight savings never materialized because the load-bearing steel substructure was as heavy as a conventional steel body …

      And then of course the rest of what went into the car was just conventional GM under-developed and trouble-prone componentry…

  • avatar

    I remember reading an article in a trade journal a few years ago about a plastic pedal assembly for a Volkswagen.  Clutch (remember those?)  and gas were plastic but the brake was steel.  Wonder why?

    • 0 avatar

      I’ve got one of those VWs and never had a bit of trouble with the plastic pedal. 173K miles now, original clutch pedal, second cable. I wondered why they would both with such corner cutting but then you see in other parts of the car uses of plastic that should have remained a metal of some sort. The water neck on the end of the engine (radiator hose) and the thermostat housings were both plastic, both cracked along the way. Neither we expensive to replace myself. A dealer or independent mechanic would have charged over $100 I’m sure for each repair. How much did VW save? How much did VW aggravate their customer? How much did that work against their quality survey results? If I’m buying a new car believe me I’ll gladly pay an extra $250 to eliminate plastic parts that ought to be aluminum. Honda has not played these games with the cars I’ve owned and consequently I’ve happily had none of these types of failures. A friend had a very expensive 4.6L Ford V-8 with a leaky plastic intake manifold. I think he told me that his only replacement parts source was the Ford dealer at over 4800 for the part and then more to have some install it. He was strong Ford supporter so he’ll work past this problem but a regular consumer might walk away from Ford never to return.
      Companies that make choices like these ought to sit up and notice. Plastic does have it’s place on any car.

  • avatar

    “It’s plastic. It’s fantastic. It’s Cher.”

  • avatar

    My A8 has aluminum just about everywhere they could put it. I’m afraid it wouldn’t be half the car if those components were plastic. (Even though it has plenty of plastics in it too where it was needed)

    Plastic is necessary for automakers to be competitive, and in fact a friend of mine has one those original Saturns and it is still his daily driver – testifying to their durability (an anomaly that GM "fixed" a few years later). However, plastic will never be upscale compared to metals especially on tactile or styled surfaces and hi pressure or temperature applications.

    • 0 avatar

      Contrarian: Your A8 account reminds me of the 1976 Dodge Dart Lite I owned for a few years from ’83 to ’86; Being a “Lite” model, it too had aluminum body panels in some areas. It weighed about 150 lbs. less than comparable models, but the fuel economy that resulted mainly came from the numerically low gearing. It was a 225 w/4 speed overdrive aluminum tranny. That car had a high cool factor as it was a coupe with a root beer reddish-brown color with interior white seats and white door panel inserts. Everything else was in black. It was a very nice color combo. The car couldn’t get out of its own way, though, it was so slow, but I loved it! Another car I shoulda kept a few more years.

    • 0 avatar

      Wouldn’t it be nice to have some of our favorite cars back again? (Note I specified favorite, we’ve all had horrors too)

    • 0 avatar

      Contrarian: Yeah. Don’t get me started! I detailed my horrors (admittedly self-imposed) about my avatar a few months back on an account of a Trailblazer Piston-Slap account.

  • avatar

    And today’s choice for “Bait the Luddite” goes to…

  • avatar

    …why is it that if the black plastic body molding on my car gets rubbed or scratched by some idiot in a parking lot, its white underneath. And if a white car’s plastic gets scratched, its black underneath? Aside from maybe matching the plastics color with the paint so inevitable little scratches don’t stick out like a sore thumb, I like plastic.

  • avatar

    Is this Hard Plastic?  Thank God it’s not on the inside if it’s hard plastic – it’ll get a cheapness review here that will spill over and bolster  the negative design criticism! 

  • avatar
    Uncle Mellow

    “Plastics are applied to the powertrain in the air inlet manifolds, air ducts and resonators, chain tensioners and belt pulleys,” Quote.
    Plastic tensioners for cambelts are the reason Opel/Vauxhall engines used to self-destruct , resulting in poor sales for current models – customers wont get fooled again. VW have been using plastic water-pump impellers , which don’t last very long either. Once it fails the engine boils , the head warps , etc etc.

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