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August 24, 2008
DETROIT -- In its recent past, Chrysler LLC's efforts to roll out new vehicles quickly to keep them fresh in the marketplace hurt their designs, according to the company's new design chief.

But Ralph Gilles says that's one of the things that will change now that he's in charge of the way Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge vehicles look both inside and out.

Also look for higher-quality interiors and smoother, more aerodynamic bodies as Gilles takes over for Trevor M. Creed, who is retiring at the end of the month.

Gilles, who worked on cutting-edge designs for the automaker like the 300C sedan and more recently its two most important products, new minivans and the new Ram pickup, said the compressed time frame for designing new vehicles affected their looks.

"We've put a lot on our backs," he said last week. "We developed a lot of cars very quickly in a short time frame."

The quick development time limited competition between design teams, which in the past yielded great work at Chrysler, he said.

"You always get the best results" with competition, said Gilles, who was promoted to vice president for design. "That's the way we used to do it back in the day."

Gilles credits Vice Chairman Jim Press and Chief Executive Bob Nardelli with endorsing plans to slow down design time.

"They're really big on execution," Gilles said. "We'd rather make it right than rush it to market."

Creed, 63, was responsible for the Chrysler PT Cruiser, Dodge Viper and the 300C, all designs that grabbed attention and sold well.

But in recent years, Chrysler's designs have fallen flat in the marketplace, most notably its more fuel-efficient offerings such as the Chrysler Sebring and Dodge Avenger midsize cars and the Dodge Caliber compact.

Other automakers have seen small and midsize car sales rise as the U.S. market has shifted from trucks and sport utility vehicles to more fuel-efficient offerings, but buyers largely have shunned Chrysler's smaller vehicles.

As a result, Chrysler sales are off nearly 23 percent so far this year, while the overall market is down 11 percent. Sebring sales are down 31 percent through July even though it is one of Chrysler's more fuel-efficient vehicles.

"They haven't been very successful, and they're still paying for it with the Sebring and Avenger," said Erich Merkle, an auto analyst with Crowe Chizek and Co. "As those gas prices move higher, the product that Chrysler has in the midsize and small segments really isn't that good relative to its competition."

Design, Merkle said, is just part of the vehicles' problems. They have inexpensive looking interiors and they don't ride as quietly as the competition, he said.

Gilles would not comment on future versions of the cars, but said the company already is fixing their interiors and ride characteristics: "The content level has been totally revised. We're taking care of those cars right now as best we can."

Gilles' most recent work was the new Dodge Ram pickup due out next month or in October. Merkle said it is competitive with the industry's best.

The new design chief hopes to transfer the attention to detail paid to the Ram to other Chrysler vehicles

LINK:Taking it slow at Chrysler | courier-journal | The Courier-Journal
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