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Ralph Gilles: April 2011 Interview with the Top Stylist and Dodge CEO

Ralph Gilles interviewAllpar caught up with Ralph Gilles (head of styling and the Dodge brand) at the 2011 New York Auto Show. Gilles was cheerful and upbeat, for good reason: Dodge has been on an upswing, with every revised car and crossover getting overwhelmingly positive reviews. Ralph Gilles himself has had a meteoric rise, and apparently few, if any, critics.

We asked what styling cues we’d be seeing from Dodge in the future; Ralph said that we can look forward to “much more expressive forms,” a more humanistic look; tough yet sleek. He also said he likes having a unique signature at night, as provided by the Charger’s and Challenger’s unique rear lights. It’s usually hard to recognize cars at night from their light signatures, but these two Dodges do it.

But why take our word for it? Here, word for word, is the story for Ralph Gilles himself.

What styling can we see for Dodge in the future? What are going to be the major styling cues?

You are about to see it soon; early next year we will have our new C segment. I can't talk too much about styling but you can see a little bit in the new Durango, a little bit in the new Charger. There are much more expressive forms, I call it humanistic, some people call it organic.

I like vehicles that have a human quality in terms of absolutely identifiable visage or face, the car has a personality and the shapes are almost like muscles. I believe a vehicle can be tough yet sleek at the same time. It is something I am experimenting with in the sheet metal.

I think you can see in today's Avenger and the Nitro and the Caravan there is a more structured aesthetic. Going forward I want a more sculptural aesthetic. The Charger is kind of a blend, it is evolving. The Durango is in that space and as we go forward you will see us having much more fun with the sheet metal, at the same time infusing the vehicles with more technology.

durango

To me the Charger is a great example, using the LED tail lamps as a signature piece in that vehicle. Very few vehicles at night have any kind of real signature, unless you get into exotics. Charger starts at just $26,000, and you have this almost super-car like presence on the road. It's pretty cool to have the car recognizable from a distance. Even the new Avenger, with its “ring of fire” tail lamps, you can pick it off at night, that's kind of fun. I remember being a kid, being in my parents' car, looking down the road and saying, "That's a Porsche, that's a Chevy such and such."

charger LED tail lights

I agree with you, the one you really wanted to spot was the Caprice, Diplomat, or the Fury.

The most important ones are the police, yeah! Charger’s going to be tough, because I think we are going to do quite well in the police market with the new vehicles.

Are you going to continue using cross-hair grills through the B and C cars?

I can't talk about that too much, but we are having a little fun abstracting it. We have played around with it; obviously it’s a split cross hair now, with the new look on the ’11 cars. Actually most of my portfolio now has a split cross hair. What I mean by abstraction is, it’s something that you kind of discover, it is not so much in your face, a little more like a detail versus a war chest or something like that. So we are looking at it.

Dodge Charger SRT8

The SRT8 was deliberate. I am enjoying all the feedback; it's a love-hate with the SRT8 Charger. Some people absolutely love the black what some people call the "fish mouth" and others call it this menacing, get out of my way aesthetic. But if you see through that you can see how the cross hair is also gloss black instead of matte black. So we are playing around with it. I like the cross hair, I think it’s fun to keep evolving it and make it a little more sculptural. In the past it was done a little too truck-like, kind of boom-boom, almost too abruptly, so now we are trying to blend it into the design more. But stay tuned; I can't reveal all my plans.

Speaking of cars with real visages, do you see round headlights coming to anything other than Challenger and Jeeps?

gillesYou mean round headlights that are not inside cans? That's interesting, I don’t know, because we do have the Durango, especially the Sport, we black out the chrome so that the round headlights are even more like a stare. So we use them discriminately; because of the circular shape of the lamp it inevitably looks like an eye, it tends to give the vehicle a stare or a glare, so we use that when it's appropriate.

But it can be restrictive; if you’re just trying to design around a headlamp per se, it can kind of dictate the whole front of the car. So I would say it depends on the theme of the car, there's no rules right now.

Challenger is unique, we obviously borrowed from the past. It is an interpretation of the original Challenger.

It's been 7 years since I last interviewed you. Since then you have risen nearly as high as a person can go without actually being the [Group] CEO. What would you say contributed most to your success?

I guess you would have to ask my boss, I don't know. I don't think of my career that way, all I know is that I love this company. I really love what I do, it's not a job at all, it's a mission for me. Kind of what we were talking about off camera, there are moments of genius. You see it all the time, I see it in our skunkworks (I formed the skunkworks team many years ago, it was actually called Skunkworks and then we changed it to Mopar Underground).

SEMA

We kind of have that enthusiasm still in the company, and there are a lot of us that feel that this company comes first before anything else. For me, I want to exalt the brand, we still haven't seen the best from this place. I feel that it is my mission to get that out there. Who says we can't have these kinds of materials in a vehicle, who says we can't have the most stunning four-door sedan or the most arresting presence on the road.

So I feel I have a personal mission, I feel I am indebted to this company, I feel that I am a designer because of Chrysler. They were the only company to write back to me when I was a kid when I wrote, "this is my dream, I want to be a car designer." It is deep within my DNA that I want to see this place succeed. All I can say is that maybe my leadership has recognized that commitment recognized that I am more passion driven than salary driven or accolade driven. I could care less about that stuff, I am really more about seeing the company do well, it's that simple.

You work with Sergio Marchionne, and you also worked with Bob Lutz. One thing that struck many people about Bob Lutz is that he would say "If I am wrong then tell me, you had better have the facts straight." Is Sergio like that or is he more fixed once his mind is set?

sergio marchionneNo, we are all learning. The company is evolving; we are experimenting with many things. We are in a growth period right now where we are seeing great transaction prices again; people are buying the cars on their virtues and enjoying the brand development real time as we are investing in the brands.

Sergio is extremely open-minded. One of my favorite things is when you see him asking lower level management or experts, we have these experts coming into our meetings, and we have these great debates and discussions. You don't see a CEO and a manager, you see two people enjoying talking about cars. I love that; I love to see the management team discussing the cars as a mission or as a project first. We are constantly debating what's the best thing for this vehicle, the best thing for the company, the best thing for the vehicle. That's really refreshing to see that time spent on debate. That's something that a good leader does, take as long as is required, sometimes it's hours, hours and hours we spend talking about one car if that's the right thing to do.

So I think he is very open minded, very ambitious and it's great to see that. It is exactly what the company needs right, someone who believes in it. And I've seen him turn around based on feedback and say, "ok, now that I've heard this argument and I've thought about it, let's do something different." That's also refreshing, we course correct as required.

The 5-speed automatic is in the SRT8 and the Hemi. We know that the ZF 8-speed is coming in for the V-6 because that was announced a few weeks back. When will we see the 5-speed fade away?

I can't talk about that as a date. We are working that out. Obviously, if you know where the ZF box comes from, their torque requirements are very different. The V-8s that we have linked to the WA580 [automatic] make a tremendous amount of torque, especially low-end torque, so it's almost a violent surge of torque. The 580 is an extremely robust box, it can handle a lot of torque.

zf 8hp90

When you have a V-8, there is so much torque that gear spacing is not as critical; it is actually more valuable on smaller engines like a V-6. That's when the 8-speed really shines, when you are having that engine operate exactly where it wants to, whereas you can lug a V-8 through larger gear ratios. People that are buying the V-8 are buying it for different reasons, they are buying it for the performance, they are buying it for the towing capacity, where as people who are buying the V-6 are obviously buying it for fuel economy as an alternative. We are amplifying that with the 8-speed, making the fuel economy even more of a proposition while maintaining the performance.

So that is why it was prioritized, we were trying to make the V-6 close the gap in performance while at the same time increasing fuel economy. There is no better way than the transmission, it is probably the most effective way to get real world fuel economy all the time, not just when you are cruising but when you are accelerating, everything. We are working on it, that's all I can say.

I think that a lot of people are curious whether we will also be getting wagons or hatchbacks.

I am a big fan of the wagon, as you know with the Magnum. I really enjoyed that project way back when. It is interesting to me that Cadillac has a wagon now, Acura is bringing a wagon, a lot of people have brought wagons, Saab has always had wagons. So I don't know, really the crossover is what people expect when they think of a wagon now.

dodge magnum AWD side view

In the passenger space I don't think it's a priority for us now, we are looking more at sedans and focusing on a true crossover. I think in America the wagon is kind of a tough proposition psychologically. The station wagon used to be the minivan of the ’60s and ’70s, so there is still a bit of a stigma there. Unfortunately, we found that out in the Magnum. I personally love the format, so when the time is right we can do it, it is pretty easy to do but right now I don't see it.

One of the vehicles coming up is the new Liberty, which has already gotten a lot of criticism even though nobody knows anything about it.

Why would they criticize a car they don't know about?

Because they know it is coming from a Fiat platform and I think people...

We haven't confirmed that.

It's in the five year plan.

Jeep Liberty in five year plan

Yeah, but the way I would look at it is that Jeep performance will always be protected. You can see what people have done, what Jeep has done with the new Compass is just awesome, they have brought it back to being a true trail rated vehicle. Technology is, especially now that we can control individual wheel speed and all that stuff, if you look at what we have accomplished with the Compass with some know how I think that will apply no matter what we do. But with Jeep if you want to expand the brand you have to look at all the options. You should ask Mr. Manley that question; he will have a good answer for you.

But don't underestimate the Jeep engineers.

A couple of days you mentioned that the Caravan is hitting different buyers than the Town & Country minivan. Can you talk at all about that?

We are still watching it because it has only been a few months since the ’11s have launched. We are still getting some traction. In some ways we are definitely starting see a different demographic buying the Town & Country and the Dodge, more than ever before.

This is the beginning of our third year as consolidated dealers, which is bringing the vehicles more often into the same showroom. Certain regions are focused more on the Town & Country, like the Midwest and the Chicago land area is more Caravan, in the Northeast it's more Town & Country. So it's interesting. But I'm glad that the dealers have a choice.

Ralph Gilles with Chrysler 300

We have done things where we have kind of fenced the vehicles like below $30,000 and over $30,000, with a little crossover in the middle. But I am interested to see how the new R/T does with the black leather. That to me is the biggest leap of faith in terms of making the interior of a minivan all black and giving it a crossover feel; I can't wait to see who buys that. It definitely won't be the current Town & Country customer, of that I am pretty sure.

How much of the difference would you say is due to the cost difference versus the styling difference?

I think it's a bunch of things. I think it's the brands; some people have an affinity for either brand. Of course the cost has something to do with it. But there are also features. There are certain features that are fenced to the Chrysler, so if you want for example, projector headlamps or you like the more opulent exterior of the chrome. It tends to be the little bit older customer that gravitates to the Chrysler. But the vehicles are very similar in function; the same power train so it is almost what is your fancy. But we do have a great value, we have the lowest cost minivan on the market, MSRP wise, so that brings us younger families and first time minivan customers as well.

How hard is it to keep the brand identities meaningful when other companies usually have a mainstream brand that is more amorphous, like Toyota selling the Corolla and the Camry and those are basically appliances? [Editor’s note: this is the “Where’s Plymouth” question.]

I think you have to give us time. The brand name push is really quite recent. We've had the brands for years but the Ram separating from Dodge has really only been less than two years in the making, and we’re still working on it. I still have vehicles with the Ram's head on them, the Nitro and the Caliber. It will take time for that transition. The branding has already begun; we have already started very progressive campaigns on both sides.

fatchance and ralph

But at the same time I see what you are saying. My brand especially, Dodge, has to reach all the way from minivans to SRTs, Challengers. It is quite a breadth of product. We are definitely starting to weave a common attitude throughout, in our advertising, in the packages we offer in the vehicles, the comeback of the R/T, the moniker on the car and the performance that comes with it, so we are fine tuning the message but it does take time. If you ask me that question two years from now hopefully it will be more clear what the Dodge brand is all about.

I think there is still the ability to do significant volume even being a performance company you can always have that ability to reach. Where I may stop, Chrysler picks up, and vice versa with Jeep and Dodge at the extreme end.

Is it at all limiting to put yourself into the sporty...?

Yes, the danger is that you can be niched very quickly if you are not careful, because the true performance lovers are a very small set of people. Then you have the people who like the look, just like the way it looks, but don't care much about the acceleration or whatever. That's actually a pretty sizable pool of people in my mind.

To me a vehicle is like a canvas, if you make it fun for them to create their vision of the car, like we offer the Durango in multiple ways from this monotone version to the blinged out Citadel, I believe in that flexibility. But at the core of the brand is performance ... and value. I think nothing better exemplifies that than the R/T right now, it has the most powerful engine in its class, and at that price, what you are getting is hard to beat.

If the Caravan R/T is a big success, will you be looking at higher performance in the power train?

I don't know, I've driven the prototypes and the power’s fine. I don't think people will be racing minivans, it’s more the smile it puts on your face when you reach that off-ramp and realize that “I can take it faster than I thought, it's really stable and it's really fun to drive.”

dodge caravan r/t

I think that people overrate horsepower, especially journalists tend to focus on the horsepower, and being a racer, to me it's the dynamics of the car that actually makes it sporty. Nowadays, the cars have gotten so powerful compared to only a few years ago that really the focus for me has been dynamics. Every one of our Dodges for 2011 has gotten major surgery on the dynamics side.

Ralph GillesIn the Avenger, for example, we have done dramatic things, like we have relocated control arms, which is unusual at a mid-life cycle. We have changed track lengths, we have actually added camber gain curves to the suspension to make the tire work better, we have widened tires in most cases, we used higher end tires, better constructed tires, which is a big part of the road feel you get in the steering.

In most cases, we shortened the steering rack ratios to get a quicker response. We have direct mounted steering racks now, with zero bushings to get that linear feel. The same thing in the new Charger and the Challenger, we changed to static negative camber settings, we changed the rack ratios, changed the bushings, the dampening efforts, even tweaked the roll center of the vehicle, so it's really noticeable.

All the cars feel a lot lighter on their feet, they corner better, their G numbers are better and that to me is grin inducing fun. And that doesn't cost anything, that's a choice, that's something that a car maker has to be committed to, and says okay, my car may not swath you and float down the road, but it will make you feel in control on the road, and that can be an intoxicating feeling over time.

Lighter definitely felt better. The cars feel hundreds of pounds lighter.

When a car does what you want it to, it feels great. When you put an input in and the car almost magically does what you want it to do, there is no delay, it’s instant, there’s a certain gratification that builds, and over time you enjoy that sensation every time you turn in or take a ramp or change lanes, it just becomes more satisfying. My wife can't quite articulate it but she feels it. When I gave her the keys to the new R/T Durango, she came back and said "I love the way that thing drives." She could never tell you why, it just puts a grin on her face, and that’s what I’m looking for, that I can bring performance to even people who are oblivious to performance. One day I hope people will talk about ”that Dodge feeling,” I’m hoping that happens over time. I’m patient.

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