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Who will drive the Global RallyCross (GRC) Dodge Dart this year?
Very likely the same people as last year.
How are your efforts to rejoin NASCAR going?
Oh my God, I can’t talk about that right now. No comment on that.
How would you describe your leadership style as head of design?
I hope that any legacy I’d leave is collaborative. I try to be as collaborative as possible, especially now, the way we’re set up with the brand. I encourage a very strong network. We’ve always had a very good relationship with our engineer base, always. It’s just getting better with time.
Now it’s between the brand head [and design]; each brand head has a strong vision of where they want to take the brand. We actually have mirrored our brand heads with my direct reports, who are brand-centric as well. So each head of design, for the Dodge brand, Chrysler brand, Jeep brand, has a direct link to the heads of the commercial side. They’re in their staff meetings. Everybody’s on the same page.
I'm always big on this, let’s all sign up for the same menu and then we go cook the thing. So I don’t think I'm the typical scarf-wearing type of designer that thinks his way or the highway. It’s not my style.
So you’re not Virgil Exner?
No, I don’t care to be. I don’t think I'm Chris Bangle. I don’t carry myself that way. I have fun, but I'm a detail kind of guy and I feel very fortunate that we have so many brands to design, so many different types of personalities of vehicles at our company.
Some time ago, you tweeted some hints that the Dart SRT4 was imminent. Looking at the latest version of the four-year plan that came out, the next SRT vehicle is due in 2016. Is there anything you can say?
Well, we have a lot of oars [in the water] right now, a lot of projects, and things that go from continuous improvement to what to do with the SRT Dart? I’ll tell you right now, we’ve got a bit of a stall in the Dart development because our standards are so much higher for ourselves.
In the old days, we would have a turbo-charged, front-wheel drive engine, boom. But we want something better and more special. and right now there’s not a powertrain that we’re happy with that is worthy of the SRT nameplate. So we’re going to wait until we have the right ingredients.
If that doesn’t show up, can we see something like a Dart R/T, realizing that the old R/T is now the Dart GT?
It’s a big car. If you even remotely like an SRT type of car, the GT is a fantastic offering. I've driven the GT. I would say it handles every bit as good as any SRT. As a matter of fact, it’s got that type of handling demeanor to it, so it’s going to make a great catch for an enthusiast who wants a great commuter as well.
So I should feel good that I didn’t snap up the Rallye?
To each his own. That was a great car too, but the GT, it’s got a little bit more torque. It’s a great handling package, 18” wheels. It’s a really nice package.
If you can’t come up with that package worthy of SRT, is there a possibility you’d do something a little bit more toned down as an R/T?
Can’t talk about it. That starts to smell of future products so I can’t talk about it.
Okay. You’d probably say the same thing if I asked about the future Chrysler design language?
Yeah, I'm very open with it. I like that the new 200 will kind of start a new era for the brand; it’s very exciting. With Sergio at the helm now, he’s had a great influence on it, and a great discussion with Assad and him and myself trying to find a new language for the brand. I think we’ve found it. I think we found something that we’ll be very proud of this time next year.
Did we see any hints of it in the 200C and 700C concepts?
No, zero. Nothing.
Are there any Chrysler designers that you’re particularly proud of at the moment that you’d like to highlight?
Oh, Brandon, everybody. Klaus [Busse] is doing a great job. He’s banging out of the park. I'm very happy with all my guys. The Jeep guys, I think Mark Allen and his team did a nice job with the new Cherokee. It’s very controversial, but I think when people see it in the flesh, in context, they’ll understand that it’s a very, very bold move but handsome and that was a very calculated event. It wasn’t happenstance. I'm really proud of that.
I think all my guys are doing a great job. Joe Doehner’s doing a fantastic job with the Ram brand, and Mark Trostle on the Viper. So yeah, we’ve got a very diverse crew that’s hard working. And you don’t hear much about Brandon, but his best work’s coming with the new 200.
[Communications man:] Are you familiar with Brandon from Chrysler? He designed the ’99 Grand Cherokee.
That was a good one.
We won’t talk about the one before this one. I don’t know where that came from.
Didn’t it come from Germany?
I don’t know where it came from.
What would you say the love/hate ratio is for people who’ve seen the Cherokee?
It’s hard to say, because the Internet stuff, I disregard that. Anyone that makes a comment on one picture shouldn’t, you know? I'm a big believer that you have to see it in the flesh.
Now between the journalists and some select media that have seen the car, they quickly go from a little bit of shock at first, which is good. As a designer, we want that kind of stimulated response. Once they drink the design in and kind of walk around the vehicle, they like it. So it kind of grows on them very, very quickly.
They also respect the attributes of the vehicle. It’s legitimately a Jeep. It’s progressive. What I like is we were able to go as far as we did styling-wise, but anyone in the world knows it’s a Jeep. That’s what’s cool. It has such a distinctive grill and a distinctive stance. As far away as it is from anything we’ve ever done, it’s a Jeep and that’s what’s cool about it.
The way that the grill bends into the hood at the top, does that have a functional purpose, or is that so you can keep the slots as long as you need to be?
Well, some of it’s the proportion. We want the front view to have the right proportion, but it’s doing a few things. It gives the vehicle a little bit more aggressive stance, because it has this [inaudible] line that kind of pokes through to the front. It also celebrates the windswept nature of the vehicle, it has this very dramatic, one of the fastest windshields we’ve ever done on a Jeep, so the front begins to kind of cheat the wind, so to speak. So the whole vehicle’s kind of wind-cheating, which is not a word that you would associate with Jeep normally, so we’re kind of having fun with this dynamic.
The front is really a progressive front. Now will that front end up on every Jeep from here on out? No. That’s a very particular aesthetic for this vehicle. People that saw the Jeep for the first time say, “Oh my God, is the next Wrangler going to look like that?” That’s not the point. It’s an incremental product for a great brand that needs it. It’s a very important part of the segment, huge part of the segment, that we don’t really play in right now. Jeep is a fantastic crossover capable brand that makes great SUVs so they deserve to play in this segment.
Does it hurt the aerodynomics to have the slots go into the hood
Not at all, no. [When we saw it, we realized that the top of the slots is blocked off.]
Will SRT will be expanding to other racing venues?
Not really. We’re very happy with ALMS. In fact, ALMS is a full-time job so we’re focused on that right now. I always keep an eye out, but right now we’re very happy with ALMS. And you know, we support Global RallyCross. Mopar does NHRA, so we have a lot of grass-roots stuff we’re doing, a Viper version of SCCA.
Are you planning to do more to publicize the success you've had in drag racing?
That’s more Mopar, that’s not really my deal. And they did quite a bit to their base. NHRA is interesting because it’s a bit of an enclosed community that really gets into that sport, so they communicate that very well with that group.
Can you tell me who’s mainly responsible for styling the Cherokee?
It’s really a team of five gentlemen, led by Mark Allen.
I'm pushing our guys to start in a new direction. We’re excited, and that’s on all brands; you’re going to start seeing this happening over time. Number one’s get the product right, get the quality up now, and [then] have a little fun with designing it.
How are you dealing with the minivans, that are still not quite decided as to who gets the minivan and who gets the crossovers, as I understand it?
They’re decided internally, but they’re not decided externally. So we don’t talk about what we’re doing externally because we don’t want to cause any undue concern with our dealers or the public. But internally the plan is quite cemented and we’re well on our way. We’re deep in development right now.
The Chrysler version, whatever it might be, will have the new design you’re working on now?
I didn’t confirm the brand or anything.
Any product I'm going to do now or that we’re going to do, is going to push it, really be out there. We’re really excited to push styling more than ever. I'm having the time of my life right now. Between the talent we have, the technology at our base, and this really progressive leader who wants to have some fun with design, our best years are ahead of us.
Once the technology has proven itself and price has gone down a little bit, are we going to be seeing the seven inch configurable gauges replacing the full gauge cluster?
I don’t see it replacing the entire cluster for some time yet, but you can see it’s proliferated in the Jeep, in the Ram, in the Dart, in the Viper. What else has it? The Durango you'll see tomorrow, then the little Jeep. So it’s getting there.
Some of the reason we’re going this way is because there’s just so much information and so much to communicate now, that a screen is more efficient. There’s more stuff. And navigation repeating itself. The new electrical architecture we have, there’s so much information on the bus system that we can easily push up there.
Whether we will get rid of the [traditional] gauges altogether? It’ll be a long time before we get completely rid of anything. We still have entry-level cars. In the case of Dart, we have both because it’s still very costly to put a screen in a vehicle.
But I would say the technology has proven itself. The biggest thing is processing speed. We don’t want any kind of stutter, so we’re putting some very good graphics engines in these vehicles.
Of course you have to make sure it doesn’t crash on a regular basis.
We’ve had no issues. Obviously like anything else when it’s new, but the production stuff is pretty solid. The resolution’s been what’s holding us back. We finally have a combination between affordability and the high resolution that you would want for that kind of display.
If you think of displays only a few years ago, they were heavily pixilated. Now we have virtually HD level resolution right in front of you, so we can finally do what we need to do. And of course the 8.4 [center display] compliments it beautifully.
Are you in charge of styling the new B-size SUV that’s in the plan?
Absolutely. 100% styled in the States.
Are there any hints you can give me?
It’s cool, I’ll tell you what. It’s making a lot of positive news inside the studios and the companies. And if you ask Mr. Manley or anybody about it, they’d be beaming. Happy.
Are we moving forward in a completely new direction, or are we looking at things we might’ve seen before in concept form?
We haven’t had a concept car of any significance in a long, long time. So everything is forward-thinking on that.
That’s interesting. Why?
Because every ounce of energy that we have… we’re a very small staff. If you look at my design staff, we have one of the smallest staffs in the business and we have to be very efficient with less. So every ounce of our being is focused on production vehicles, and that’s including our engineering staff, because show cars are very labor intensive. You have to do the interior, exterior, you have to do a lot of work that is very close to what it takes a real car. So we just don’t have the time or the resources right now. There’ll be a time one day when we can catch up, but we’re really cooking at the office right now. There’s just not enough time to do that.
Even though that’s true, you have a pretty good show schedule. You seem to be everywhere. Is that an important part of the job?
I have to. I didn’t go to Geneva this year. I didn’t go to Beijing. Or I may go to Beijing, but I try to send my directs around as much as possible because I also have motorsports I manage on the weekends. My weekends are usually consumed at tracks and such.
But I do spend a lot of time at the office. We have very long days. We have typically ten hour plus days every day. We try not to run a sweatshop, but we run pretty 24/7 because that’s just the way the cadence is.
But yeah, we get a lot done. We’re very efficient, because of the technology between my iPad, my laptop, and my Blackberry, I can stay connected and we do very creative things to get decisions made even if I'm remote.
Are we going to see you at Carlisle this year?
I love that show. I went for the first time last year. It was always one of those things in the back of my mind, I really want to get into that show, and I finally did.
I was blown away; I was really amazed. It’s obviously one of the longest running shows out there for Mopars. I enjoy it. I love the diversity. I love how the Viper club was there, but you also have the original Chargers, Barracudas, even going back into the 50s; it was really exciting to see such a great variety of vehicles. So I'm going to try to get back.
I've got a lot of shows I’d love to hit: Moparpalooza, I just came back from Spring Fest last weekend. I love the consumer-type shows. It’s really a mom and pop. And I love you see entire families going to these shows. The kids, the parents, the wife will sit down in lawn chairs and I walk by. And inevitably, most of the times they don’t know who I am which they like. I don’t even tell them I'm from headquarters. I just say hey, tell me about your car, and off comes a wonderful story.
It’s nice once in a while to be around the most passionate owners because it reminds you that you’re not making commodities. You’re making dream machines for people. You’re punctuating their lives. You’re creating a personal reward for them when you design a cool car. So that’s my objective. You don’t see Carlisle shows for Camry, you know? So we’re trying to do some cool stuff, creative, and enough dream machines to keep this thing going.
Also see: 2011 Ralph Gilles interview • Other interviews
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