Hooniverse Asks: Is the Average Modern Car Too Plasticky?

I will readily admit that I am old enough to remember when cars made the inexorable switch from metal dashboards to plastic. You can even point to the models that effected this change – Ford’s Maverick/Fairmont switchover for example. It wasn’t just dashes, at the same time cars made a wholesale switch – grilles, hubcaps, badges, light-surrounds – from metal to dead dinosaur.
I fully get the weight savings afforded to such a switch, as well as the safety implications as I would far prefer to interact with a yielding plastic surface than one intended to stand up to such attacks as a knee or forehead. Still, If you’ve been in pretty much any mainstream car from that era to now, it’s almost always a plastic fetish’s dream come true.
Car makers have gone to great lengths to mask the plastics in their cars, offering textures that disguise, and colors that beguile, but truth be told, I find those even more annoying. In fact, even the leather seating on modern cars isn’t even leather anymore, having been imbued with a vinyl coating that may extend its useful lifespan, but still doesn’t feel like leather to me.
We get into and out of a lot of cars over the months, and I’m wondering if they almost all aren’t suffering from extreme plastic-itise? What do you think, are modern cars too plasticky both inside and out?
Image: DarkCatLife

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  1. Mallomar Avatar

    Certainly some cars

    1. Kiefmo Avatar

      I see this, and in my head I hear the sound of a small, handheld vacuum cleaner.
      One of my HS girlfriends was handed down a dustbuster Olds Silhouette by her parents when she turned 16. She didn’t like driving, but my truck was uncomfortable and ::ahem:: compact, so I wound up driving the minivan a lot when we went out. I’ve never known a vehicle that had a harder-to-judge front bumper distance. When you pulled into a parking spot the appropriate amount, it felt like you were way too far back. I checked a lot of bumpers before I learned.

      1. Mallomar Avatar

        Oh yeah, it’s good it was dent resistant with that square mile of dashboard. That’s what I love about my Toyota van, my feet are basically at the corners.

        1. dead_elvis Avatar

          Nothing like being the first one to “arrive” in an accident.
          /former VW bus owner

  2. Jonathon Klein Avatar

    Bring back toggle switches! Nothing like starting a car with a toggle switch.

  3. P161911 Avatar

    The worst thing has to be the matte finish/soft touch crap that GM insists on putting over high use plastic areas. That crap starts peeling off like a bad sunburn after just a couple of years. The spokes on the steering wheel of my Silerado have that junk. At less than 50k miles it was peeling/wearing off. Just give me a plastic with some light texturing, not that crap.

    1. Kiefmo Avatar

      But it pleases those autojournos who love to rave about soft touch plastics!
      Give me hard-wearing plastics that won’t fade, warp, and crack in the sun over something soft-to-the-touch any day! I don’t make a habit of lovingly caressing the dashboard and other random areas anyway. There are only two interior points I care about when it comes to feel: The steering wheel, and the arm rests (if present).

      1. theskitter Avatar

        I always imagine them running their hands over every crack and crevice, blindfolded, for hours.

        1. GreenPEAs Avatar

          You guys don’t do this? It’s how I get warmed up for my wife.

      2. Jeep Jeff Avatar
        Jeep Jeff

        I lovingly caress my dashboard regularly. Usually after a little bit of WOT. Mine is all hard plastic, and that doesn’t hurt the experience.
        (I’m not kidding. Someday there is going to be a worn spot on the top, driver side corner of the center console.)

    2. Citric Avatar

      I have soft touch plastics in my car. I also have a habit of resting my elbow on the top of the door. After a long road trip, I discovered I had made a tiny little dent on the top of the door where my elbow goes. I think it has bounced back though.

    3. Tanshanomi Avatar

      The worst is when it degrades to the point where the surface is constantly gummy, and it rolls up into little balls under your fingers.

  4. elan Avatar

    If you are talking about under the hood, then I can definitely agree that there is too much plastic.
    I know most people don’t care what their engine looks like and whether there is a dip stick but some people do.

    1. Kiefmo Avatar

      When I changed the plugs on the family hauler (Odyssey), I decided I liked the look of the big aluminum intake manifold, and chucked the plastic cover in the garage. It’s the only vehicle I’ve ever owned that had one of those absurd things, and I didn’t like it from the start. I don’t need a piece of plastic with fake intake runners molded into it, especially when they don’t at all mirror what’s underneath.
      It’s especially offensive when the plastic cover makes it looks like the orientation is different from reality. I’m looking at you, Tiburon V6!

      1. dukeisduke Avatar

        Yeah, they’re stupid, but one point its to muffle the sound of the injectors clicking. Both of our vehicles (the Sienna and the Tacoma) have them.

        1. Kiefmo Avatar

          I like to hear my injectors clicking! Give me all the noises!
          How else will I know whether something is truly going wrong?

          1. PotbellyJoe★★★★★ Avatar
          2. Kiefmo Avatar

            You’re assuming that light wasn’t covered by electrical tape long ago due to a sensor issue that I just ain’t about to fix.

          3. PotbellyJoe★★★★★ Avatar

            I’m in the same boat, I have looked at this:
            Everyday since someone filled my washer tank with RainX washer fluid. Apparently Chrysler uses an electrical sensor in the tank that the RainX Additive screws up. So it’s $2.50 to get a new sensor and then I have to get to it to replace it.
            Or I can just have the warning light on.

          4. CSM Avatar

            I wonder how many warranty claims have been made for injector clicking? Plenty I am sure. I bet those plastic shrouds have saved millions of warranty dollars.

    2. irishzombieman Avatar

      What those big plastic shields are actually saying:

      View post on imgur.com

    3. CSM Avatar

      Do you prefer an extra 100 pounds in weight, corrosion, and an extra $1000 added to the purchase price?

  5. Kiefmo Avatar

    I’m okay with plastics, and for precisely the reasons you mention.
    At their heart, cars are made to get us and our stuff from one location to another. Preferably safely, efficiently, and fast enough that we don’t get in the way of everyone else trying to get themselves and their stuff from one location to another.
    Synthetic polymers are certainly not sexy materials (with — cough — exceptions that deserve no mention on a car blog), but they are lighter (weight is enemy of shpeeeeed!), cause less damage when slammed into our various fleshy bits, and, in more recent cars, just as recyclable as metal (to satisfy those with green leanings like me).
    As a bonus, they do a better job of absorbing sound. So in your DD, where you might be more interested in hearing Morning Edition on NPR than the tinkle of every pebble kicked up into your undercarriage, that’s a bonus. All-metal cans are race cars, not commuters, unless you’re a glutton for exposure to the elements. And at that point, just buy a damned motorcycle!

    1. wunno sev Avatar
      wunno sev

      come on homie, you can’t be that reasonable in an internet website comment section

  6. Alff Avatar

    Funny, I was thinking about this question last night as I looked at my newer cars and wondered which of them I might be proud to drive and maintain twenty years from now. My first thought was about the dash plastics and what a PITA it will be to source replacements.
    For those with a drive it forever mentality, there absolutely is too much plastic in modern cars. It degrades too rapidly. I supposed the evolution of 3D printing will be the saving grace for some of the more desirable modern cars as they reach collector status.

    1. Kiefmo Avatar

      I fully intend to keep my W126 forever, and its dash has but a few tiny cracks after its 34 years of life. I have no idea how much of its life was spent garaged, though, so my outlook for its interior longevity might be a shade optimistic. At least MBtex is very long-lived. My seats are in great shape (given 248k miles worth of butt time, that is).

  7. PotbellyJoe★★★★★ Avatar

    The only plastic I truly despise in cars is plastic washers. They will eventually give, or shrink, or crack and then you have a creak/rattle that is nearly impossible to locate.
    After that, well, you get what you pay for.
    I love the concept that cheap cars use polymers to save money, while high-end racecars use polymers to save weight with money as 0 concern.
    (I know they’re different, I started my adult life in plastics engineering.)

  8. CSM Avatar

    In Defense of Plastic
    I observe how many in the auto punditacracy, from Clarkson to Neil, take every available opportunity to disparage plastic interior parts. I believe their venom is unfounded. Here’s why:
    1) I prefer lightness to heaviness. Plastic light, metal is heavy. 2) I prefer value for money–injection molded plastic parts are cheaper than metal stampings 3) Contemporary plastics resist UV degradation and hold up well for the typical 15 year life most cars live 4) Plastics are typically easy to clean.
    I note how Ford Mustangs are routinely derided for their plastic dashboards and switches. Okay, fine, they are indeed plastic-ky. But what other car offers more than 400 horsepower, 6 speed manual trans for less than $35k? I much prefer big horsepower and a gearstick with a plastic dash over a V6 automatic with a leather dash.

    1. Tanshanomi Avatar

      That’s a valid argument.
      Damn it.

      1. Jeep Jeff Avatar
        Jeep Jeff

        Don’t worry. It’s just about the interior. You can still hate on excessive plastic in the engine bay. That’s just extra weight in the name of sound baffling.

        1. CSM Avatar

          That plastic masks injector ticking that would otherwise cost manufacturers/dealers millions in warranty claims.

    2. nanoop Avatar

      Valid indeed, and the 15y span is even longer where I live. On my project car, the dashboard is a small pored foam, molded into a smooth outer shell. The foam degrades now after 20+ years, so that the shell cracks. Any attempt to fill the cracks and cover it up with whatever will result in even more cracks that will undulate the new cover layer after five more years. The only way to repair this would be to remove all the foam and replace it with a different plastic foam du jour.
      I consider the cracking dash as character…