Since the Corvette debuted with its fiberglass body panels, the use of automotive composites has grown. People with a stake in plastics say the material can give a dealership's sales force a competitive advantage.

The Troy, MI-based Automotive Composites Alliance (ACA) projects that the use of reinforced thermoset composites is expected to increase 47% in the next five years.

"Consumer demand for more-customized, durable and fuel-efficient vehicles is driving the growth of composites," says Michael F. Dorney, vice president of sales and marketing for the Budd Co.'s Plastics Division and chairman of the ACA.

He says that in addition to giving automakers more flexibility in meeting customer wants, dealership sales people can use these plastic components as a sales tool.

New applications for plastic among 2000 and 2001 model year vehicles that could be used in a sales pitch include the lift gate-cargo door assembly on the 2000 Ford Excursion, which offers a 15% weight savings, easier opening and closing as well as better fit and finish.

The cargo box inner panels and fenders on the 2001 Chevrolet 1500 Series 4WD Silverado extended cab can reduce total vehicle weight by 50 pounds, increase fuel economy and load-carrying capability and offer improved impact and corrosion resistance.

The composite pickup box on the Ford Explorer Sport Trac reduces vehicle mass by 20% to 30%, also good for fuel economy and corrosion resistance.

Other plastic components on new Fords include the hoods of the 2000 Lincoln Navigator and 2000 Econoline, the fenders on the 2001 Super Crew and F-150 Flareside.

"In general, thermoset components are 25% lighter than steel, which makes things like doors operate more easily," says Mr. Dorney. "Lighter-weight vehicles also better fuel economy.

"And these parts are corrosion, damage and dent resistant," he continues. "These are important benefits that sales people can use to convince customers to buy these vehicles."