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Detroit 2012: Ralph Gilles Talks Charger, Viper, SRT, and Style

January 9 2012

Joe Lorio caught up with Ralph Gilles, president and CEO of SRT and Motorsports, as well as senior vice president of product design, at the 2012 North American International Auto Show. The two discussed a variety of topics. Here’s what Ralph had to say.

Does the Charger set the design language for Dodge?

The current Charger was deliberately designed to be a Charger. Obviously, it harkens back to the ’69-’70 model with the Coke-bottle [body shape], the flying buttress [C-pillars], and the kamm tail — the front end is a little more current. So, they’re not going to use that detail — they can’t; it would be disingenuous. However, the Dart’s a perfect example of taking some of that DNA strain, like the taillamps and some of the detail of the flying buttress C-pillars, and pushing it forward in a way that’s contemporary and uniquely ours.

The next Viper is going to be badged an SRT and not a Dodge. Why?

We need a flagship; our brand is truly unique. It’s one car that doesn’t share anything with anything else. It’s really its own platform.

Couldn’t Dodge use the rub-off?

It’s so different. We debated that quite a bit, Sergio, myself and all the people in the product committee. Especially with where we’re going with the Viper, it’s so removed — it’s always going to have a halo effect, it will be spiritually known as a Dodge, people will always call it a Dodge for years, but we want to go after a different customer as well. An incremental customer to our current base.

Where is it being designed?

Here. In Detroit. It’s done, the design has been done for over a year and half now.

You say you want to appeal to a different customer, how are you going to do that?

It’s mostly to do with execution. I love my current Viper owners, don’t get me wrong. They’re fanatical, we love ‘em, and we absolutely designed this car with them in mind first. But in terms of the level of detail, the finishing — world class is what we’re going after. Because we did some research and we talked to people that would set foot in a Viper — they like the Viper, they respected it, but they would never own one, and we asked them why and 99 percent of the issues had to do with fit and finish, the execution. It should look like what you charge for it. So we think the execution definitely will be appealing to a lot more people this time.

Is the idea also to establish SRT more?

Absolutely. It’s the flagship. And we’re going to use it as such. We’re going to really promote the Viper as the SRT flagship.

A lot of companies have a performance division. Of those, which do you think provides the best model of where you’d like to take SRT?

It’s a fusion. I really love what Porsche does with racing. They do a phenomenal job marrying their racing and their brand together. AMG obviously has a nice product breadth. The M group, I think in terms of wholistic execution they do phenomenal job — they’re road cars, but they do a nice job integrating the character away from the street car. The difference between SRT and those is that we cover multiple brands, not just Dodge, for example, we have Jeep and Chrysler. So it’s a bit of a challenge to make sure whatever we do builds upon each brand that we serve.

None of those are standalone brands. Why make SRT a standalone brand?

Because it’s become so popular — if you count the Viper, we’ve sold roughly 150,000 SRT vehicles. And that customer wants more. They see themselves as SRT owners, not just as Charger owners. They see themselves as elite. So, we’re kind of building on this community.

Are there any vehicles in the Chrysler portfolio that would not lend themselves to the SRT treatment?

The minivan. But I have thought about it.

Journey? Other crossovers?

Yeah, we have to be careful. And as we go forward, we’re going to be very specific. We’re going to lower our volume. Actually, most of our products are capped. Like the Grand Cherokee SRT8, we make a certain amount for U.S. retail, and that’s it. We want to keep the value of the products up. Because otherwise there’s the risk of becoming just a trim badge. We want to make sure they’re exclusive. We’re charging more for the vehicles because there’s more content, so by restricting our volume our dealers are happy.

Design-wise, what has been the most important Chrysler product of the last 10 years?

It’s impossible to name one, because the brands are so different. So, if you have one for each brand, I would say the 300 for Chrysler, the current Grand Cherokee for Jeep, and I would say the current Charger for Dodge. And the Challenger in a way; the whole idea that performance can peacefully coexist even in these times.

You have new compact sedans coming. Will we see more differentiation between Chrysler and Dodge than we have with today’s 200 and Avenger?

Oh yeah. You’re seeing that now. Obviously, those cars were born of a different time. We’re going to try to avoid segments overlapping completely.

What have you seen here that impresses you?

I haven’t had my normal walk-around, but hat’s off to Ford for the Fusion. I like what they’ve done with it. It’s surprising how big it is, but again you’re starting to see styling come to what used to be mundane segments. The C segment, the D segment, everyone is starting to put some love in these segments whereas before they were kind of pedestrian segments. It’s nice to see that happening.

And more important to me, the Detroit show is back — launches upon launches upon launches, and new stuff. The optimism is hard to ignore. I’m glad that we’re part of that.

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