First, vinyl disappeared from our record cabinets. Now it's disappearing from car and truck interiors. Likely by the end of this decade, it'll be bye-bye vinyl as a covering for instrument and interior door panels in new vehicle programs in North America.

Also known as PVC, (short for poly vinyl chloride) vinyl will be replaced by thermoplastic olefin (TPO) as the skin for IPs and door panels.

Why? Because a growing number of proponents consider TPO better than PVC just about anyway you cut it - except for price, where vinyl remains the lowest cost option.

Delphi Automotive Systems' research found that TPO maintains its color and its softness for at least 10 years, while PVC begins to fade, harden and crack after five or six years.

"As PVC becomes brittle it increases the chance that particles will fly when an air bag is deployed," says Norm Kakarala, plastic materials development engineer at Delphi. "TPO stays soft, thus, there is no particle disbursement with air bag deployment."

What's more, TPO is 10% to 15% lighter than PVC and is far more recyclable because it is compatible with other plastics, unlike PVC.

That's very important in Asia and Europe where automakers have been phasing out vinyl and shifting to TPO or other plastics for a decade because of pressure from environmentalists.

The two densely populated regions have little room for landfills, which PVCs require at the end of their useful lifespans. What's more, anti-vinyl activists complain that environmentally damaging chlorine is used to make PVCs, and claim that vinyl gives off toxic dioxin when incinerated.

As American manufacturers become more global, they also are standardizing processes with their Asian and European units and affiliates.

General Motors Corp. now is leading the TPO push in North America. GM has declared that by 2004 all of its new-vehicle programs will use non-PVC materials for interior coverings, which primarily impact door and instrument panel coverings.

GM's 2000 Pontiac Bonneville's upper and lower level instrument panel skin already is TPO. That's only the beginning. Bob Eller, president of Robert Eller Associates Inc., an Akron, OH-based plastics consulting firm, expects GM's TPO edict to soon apply to the side and back of seats of the automaker's new vehicles, which now are covered with PVC.

"The real next challenge is to make a flexible coated fabric from TPOs," says Mr. Eller. "That's coming fairly soon because TPO-coated fabrics are beginning to be used for security screens that are in sport/utility vehicles (SUVs)."

Haartz Corp., an interior supplier, recently invested $7 million for new equipment to produce TPOs and to build a 58,000-sq.-ft (5,200-sq.-m) addition to its Acton, MA, manufacturing plant to store, inspect and ship the finished goods. But Haartz didn't have one order for any TPO-covered parts when it began its expansion.

"In our minds, it wasn't whether TPOs would replace PVCs, but when," says Tim Jackson, director of automotive sales at Haartz's Bloomfield Hills, MI, office. "We wanted to be in a position to supply TPOs."

Mr. Jackson says Haartz has been awarded contracts to supply TPOs for two new vehicle programs, and he expects to snare several more by the end of this year. One of the new vehicle program contracts awarded to Haartz is for a 2001 model at Ford Motor Co., Mr. Jackson says.

Rick Aneiros, vice president of Jeep Truck Design and color fabric mastering, says that while the Chrysler side of DaimlerChrysler uses TPO coverings for some lower instrument panel coverings and pillar trims, he doesn't yet see a massive changeover by North American manufacturers from PVCs to T POs.

Still, Mr. Aneiros says, "We'd be happy to look at any use for TPO."

Delphi already supplies a TPO instrument-panel covering for the Mercedes-Benz M-Class SUV sold in the United States and Europe. The giant supplier developed a way to recycle 100% of the offal back into TPO skin during production.

TPO has been found to be highly scuff resistant, it doesn't contain plasticizers that slowly evaporate from the plastic and fog up windshields, and it can be produced with the same equipment used to manufacture PVC components.

As TPO usage goes up, the cost - which is higher than vinyl - is expected to come down. And TPO has deep-draw forming characteristics that enable manufacturers to give it very realistic, leather-like grains.

In the business it's called "grain retention." To the consumer, TPO just looks more like real leather than PVC.