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by Keith Griffin April 7, 2010

NEW YORK—Ralph Gilles, president and CEO for Dodge and senior vice president of product design for Chrysler, has been with Chrysler since 1992. He’s best known in automotive design as lead designer of the Dodge Charger, Dodge Magnum, and Chrysler 300 sedan. He sat down with at the New York International Auto Show to discuss the future of automotive design.

In November, you unveiled your big plans for Dodge. Among them is a new Charger that is “all new and dramatically styled.” How do you redesign a retro-influenced car?
The current Challenger was designed to be a muscle car but we weren’t outwardly trying to make it retro. The new Charger will be more expressive. It has spent a lot of time in the wind tunnel. It will be more rakish. It’s going to evolve in a beautiful way. It’s a stunner but won’t lose its character. (Ed. note: It’s coming out in the 4th quarter this year.)

What do global car companies mean for American product design? How do we stop the homogenization of American sheet metal?
I’m not really sure there is such a thing as an American car. These are American icons. The 300C is as American as it gets. The Challenger is boldly American – but if you look at the physics, to achieve a certain efficiency there is a massaging of forms. Cars will end up looking alike because of physics. We can do a lot with interiors. The next step will be great American interiors. Dodge is going to enjoy that puzzle. Every Dodge will drip with Americana.

In a speech before the Chicago Economists Club in February, you said that you fear the automobile becoming just a commodity and your job is to make sure that Chrysler products are “recognized and noticed.” The biggest sellers are commodities like the Toyota Camry. How do you please a large segment of the public that wants practicality over passion and still keep your brand financially viable?
Passion comes in many different ways. Even if a car doesn’t turn heads, the owner still has a relationship with the car. Some buy it for transportation but you can make a car more passionate with interiors and infotainment and customer treatment. Commodity cars do the basics really well. If you can get the fundamentals down and nail the design and get customer satisfaction, then you’re successful.

In August 2007 you delivered a speech before industry folks in Traverse, Mich., where you said “Innovate or die.” What innovations are coming that will stop Chrysler from dying?
There is an innate connectivity piece. The next generation of minivans will be safer. (Ed. note: Gilles oversaw the design of the all-new 2008 Dodge and Chrysler minivans.) Electronics in the automobile are among the innovations. We’re going to build vehicles that people love, yet make them as efficient as possible. There are ways to preserve what people love and get fuel efficiency. Aerodynamics. Design wise it’s what I can do to make a car as slippery as possible. I don’t want to rely just on styling. It’s the sum of the parts. Customer service is also going to be important.

A spy shot of the next generation Chrysler 300C reveals a front fascia that is stunning. Is the 300C going to be a perpetual design canvas for Chrysler? Start with the big sedan first and trickle down?
The 300 is a special car. It will always be a flagship. You can’t force an aesthetic on a car that doesn’t have the proportions. You’ll see some DNA shared on future product. I’m proud of what we’ve been able to do. What we’re trying to do is the fundamentals. A good looking car or fresh sheet metal alone isn’t the answer. We’re not rushing products. The new Grand Cherokee will be introduced in the second quarter but everything else comes in the fourth quarter.

You said before the Chicago Economist Club that for today's "millennial" (or Gen Y) buyers, exterior design is only 5 percent of the reason they consider a certain vehicle. What does that mean for the future of car design? Do millenials not care what a car looks like?
Interiors and technologies are the culture for millenials. They’re big believers in not just the product but the culture. They want to believe in what the company stands for. Styling is important for them but it’s not the first thing. Design used to be number one but now it’s electronics. Millenials are also brand switchers, which is good news and bodes well for us.
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