Ralph Gilles

Ralph Gilles, chief designer at Chrysler and also the head of the Dodge division, has always been an entertaining car-company exec, partly because he’s closer in age to most of the pack of journalists—he’s 39—than the average golf-playing, middle-aged car-company highup. The fact that he actually enjoys driving and loves cars means we tend to be more on the same wavelength, too.

We caught up with him at the Detroit auto show. While he was more guarded than used to be the case at Chrysler—the new regime at Fiat seems to have everyone “on message”—he did spill a few beans.

Do you think you can get the mojo back that you had when the first 300/Charger came out?
The way I look at it, when the original car was launched, it was pretty much our only game in town, right? So if you think about the future we will have multiple cars done to that level. I’m very confident that the new Grand Cherokee is going to raise the bar. We are not going to ride on just the success of the 300, we are going to put that level of detail on everything.

I want to get to the stage where our cars are great, so we are pushing a great deal on interiors. You will be the judge, but we are trying to get that over our shoulder once and for all.

Where do you need to go with design in the future?
It has to be world-class but also modern. We need to regain our leadership in that area. At the same time I want our cars to be instantly recognizable anywhere in the world. The challenge is to refine the cars and get them to be sexier and more attractive and maintain the brand distinction. One thing Sergio [Marchionne, Fiat/Chrysler CEO] has been clear about is that our cars aren’t just being revamped. They are going under the knife. Everything is being looked at: suspension, interiors, powertrains, exterior, handling, even things like the roll centers are being changed to get them to drive differently. We are looking at every aspect of handling: I have requested distinct handling characteristics for Dodge to make the cars feel sportier and more connected.

When it comes to styling, that’s not been the worst area of your cars. Caliber, for instance, looks pretty good. The rest . . .
From the dealer standpoint, the Achilles heel of the car was the interior. And we’re not silly, we looked at the car and we assessed it and we saw the customer feedback. The refreshed interiors are a response to customer feedback, to magazine feedback, to third-party feedback.

But how did they get to be so terrible?
I think, going back in history, back in the day, we were trying to do too much with too little. We had launched a lot of products, and we were being a little too hasty with some of those cars. The execution wasn’t there and my interior studio didn’t exist back then. You had a lot of exterior guys doing interiors who didn’t understand the nuances. Now we have dedicated people doing the interiors. In the fourth-quarter products—[300/Charger and a new Dodge crossover]—you’ll see an absolute shift in attention to detail.

How do you manage the two parts of your job?
I have developed the ability to put the hat on when I need to. And I am trying to bring the design to the brand guys. I bring them in and show them the new product. They have never enjoyed that level of exposure. One of the big changes I brought to the design office when I took over from Trevor [Creed] is opening up the doors and letting people see the future, see the vision. And then the battles are a lot easier. Actually, there are no battles: it’s more of a collaborative experience.

So when Trevor was there, the brand guys were excluded?
It’s just a different way of working. Trevor has his way, I have my way. Basically I am trying to reach out to the other side of the company to have a wonderful, collaborative experience. And they enjoy it. I get great feedback. Their [security] badges are turned on now so they get access to the design office, so it has helped get them to fall in love with the products. It takes the windage out: it wastes a lot of energy when you think five different things about the same product. We have staff meetings right in front of the clay models with the engineering and product-planning staff.

When’s the first shared-platform-car coming?
2012. Sergio has already been very clear about that with our new C-segment vehicle. But in the meantime, we are already benefiting from some great powertrain advice, some great dynamics advice. The partnership is already working.

Do you think the trend is to smaller cars?
Americans still value space. The market is still segmenting itself over time. We see growth in the B segment and a little bit in the C, but there’s plenty to go around. I see a solid strategy over at Ford and see nothing wrong with that. But I think the trick, though, as the younger generation comes on, is that their paradigms are very different. We shouldn’t underestimate how flexible the American market can be given the right product. If you create the right small car—one that isn’t an excuse—you will see people getting turned on by it. You and I have paradigms about what a sports car is, but young people, let’s call them the xB generation, they love that boxy thing. The millenials love toting friends around in their car, love listening to music, like connectivity. They’re more in tune with the interior of the car. The exterior  styling is almost happenstance, so you come at them with different devices. I think the next generation of customers will be exceptionally practical, more so than our generation.

By Mark Gillies