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Greater LA Auto Show

For those that still associate plastic body parts with the bland design and wide body panel gaps of older-generation Saturn models, the folks at the new Sabic Innovative Plastics have a car for you: the Hyundai QarmaQ.

Actually, they have a number of plastic applications they want to show off, not only on the QarmaQ, which makes its U.S. debut at the Los Angeles auto show in mid-November, but also the front fenders of the pricey BMW 6-Series coupe currently in production and the skin of General Motors Corp.’s stunning Volt plug-in hybrid concept car.

The thermoplastic material Saturn previously used for vertical panels is 10-year-old technology Sabic officials sniff, and it’s time to take a look at its new generations of plastic composites that are far more capable and dimensionally stable than older materials.

The QarmaQ (pronounced car-mack) derives its name from traditional Inuit dwellings that were constructed from earth, whalebone and animal skins. The concept vehicle, first introduced at the Geneva auto show in March, is designed to challenge traditional ideas about construction methods and materials.

The body panels are made of Xenoy iQ and Valox iQ resins that Greg Adams, vice president and general manager of the new company, says were designed to answer three environmental concerns: conserving energy, lowering greenhouse gas emissions and reusing materials such as PET plastic bottles.

The QarmaQ reuses about 900 PET bottles that otherwise would become landfill, he says.

Detroit auto makers were very hot on the use of plastic and composite body panels in the 1980s and 1990s as a means to reduce weight and avoid the rust problems of steel.

GM introduced a flurry of innovative models skinned in plastic, including the Pontiac Fiero sporty car and an infamous family of “dustbuster” minivans, whose innovative styling was mocked by potential buyers as resembling a hand-held vacuum cleaner.

Plastic body panels were a key part of the design of several Saturn generations as well, and Chrysler LCC and Ford Motor Co. also considered numerous plastic-bodied concepts for trucks and cars.

But the benefits of plastic were lost on most U.S. consumers, and the big gaps on Saturns that were required by the expansion characteristics of the panels hurt the brand’s quality image.

New rust-resistant steels cooled Detroit’s plastics fervor, even though interest is growing in Europe as well as Asia’s emerging markets.

Sabic Innovative Plastics was formed in August when Middle East petroleum giant Saudi Basic Industries Corp. purchased GE Plastics, a unit of General Electric Corp., for $11.6 billion.

Always an innovator in automotive materials under the GE Plastics banner, the new company is trying to rekindle auto industry interest by re-introducing engineers to the unique benefits of plastic and composite body structures with a variety of new projects.

Among them is the aforementioned QarmaQ, developed by Hyundai Motor Co. Ltd. in partnership with the former GE Plastics to pursue more than 30 different environmentally progressive technologies that will be selectively incorporated into Hyundai’s new models from 2008 to 2014.

With pedestrian protection a growing concern in Europe and Asia, the cross/utility vehicle’s elastic front safety system is claimed to be the world’s first global pedestrian-protection solution engineered for a CUV. Three energy-absorbing structures are fully integrated underneath the vehicle skin and take advantage of several advanced materials that offer inherent energy absorbing properties.

The concept vehicle’s body panels have been designed to work in concert with the energy-absorbing systems to manage and dissipate the force of a collision with a pedestrian. The system meets EEVC WG17 Phase2, Euro NCAP and JNCA pedestrian-impact requirements.

The QarmaQ also demonstrates a fusion of exterior plastic technologies using panoramic wrap-around glazing that incorporate Sabic’s Lexan clear polycarbonate resin instead of glass.

The result is reduced weight and dramatically increased downward visibility that resembles that of the bubble of a helicopter cockpit.

This increased visibility is another take on the idea used for the Volt, where clear plastic is used for the upper part of the car’s doors to enhance visibility and create a dramatic design.

Thanks to the extensive use of advanced materials throughout, QarmaQ is 132 lbs. (60 kg) lighter than a comparable CUV made with traditional materials, Sabic says.

dwinter@wardsauto.com