WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA – Chrysler’s performance chief says it’s “absolutely paramount” the auto maker introduce a SRT-badged C-car to the brand’s growing portfolio.

SRT President and CEO Ralph Gilles fondly recalls being lured into the automotive world by small performance cars such as the Volkswagen GTI. Those types of vehicles offered performance at a reasonable price, opening the door to young enthusiasts, he says.

“I was so proud when we came up with the (Dodge Neon) SRT4 turbo, because up until then Honda was the only game in town, and those weren’t factory produced performance cars,” Giles tells Ward’s during a media event here.

“The Neon put the whole street-tuning scene on its ear with the factory turbo. We have to figure out how to get an entry-level SRT product to capture the next generation.”

The car to which Gilles refers will be a Dodge C-segment sedan derived from the same platform that shoulders the highly acclaimed European-market Alfa Romeo Giulietta offered by alliance-partner Fiat.

The C-segment platform, known internally as C-U.S. Wide, also will shoulder cross/utility vehicles for Fiat’s Alfa Romeo and Lancia brands.

While Gilles is adamant that a high-performance C-car would be a welcome addition for Chrysler, he stops short of saying it’s a done deal, noting internal plans still are being hammered out.

However, it’s unlikely the entry-level model would share the 470-hp 6.4L Hemi V-8 shared by its SRT brethren introduced at the event here. The Dodge Challenger SRT8, already on the market, soon will be joined by SRT8 versions of the Chrysler 300, Jeep Grand Cherokee and Dodge Charger.

Despite the down economy and high gas prices, Gilles says the time is right for this lineup of fuel-thirsty cars. Federal fuel-economy ratings have yet to be released for the vehicles, but several Chrysler officials expect the auto maker to be hit with a gas-guzzler tax.

SRT customers are a special breed, he says, and fuel economy is far down their list of priorities. “They don’t seem to be affected by high gas prices, and they know what they’re getting into,” Gilles says. “They buy for performance, styling and reputation of the brand.”

Because of the unique nature of the SRT customer base, Chrysler is not planning any “classic marketing” techniques such as television spots, he says. Rather, the auto maker intends to heavily leverage social-media outlets such as Facebook to promote the vehicles.

“Social media is hugely important,’ Gilles says. “Luckily, this audience is somewhat easy to find because they’re pretty focused and tend to congregate around the same kind of things.”

Chrysler launched a Facebook page six weeks ago brimming with information on both old and new SRT models, he says, noting other social-media initiatives will be launched in the near future.

Unlike most customers, performance enthusiasts tend to trust word-of-mouth recommendations over traditional advertising techniques. Further, they’re typically more knowledgeable than most, and tend to belong to enthusiasts clubs, where Gilles says SRT team members will have a heavy presence.

Such one-on-one interaction with consumers provides a valuable bonding experience, he says, noting when he brings his personal Dodge Viper sports car to enthusiasts events, people “can’t believe” the CEO of the brand is walking among them and getting his hands dirty.

“I won’t be around forever, so I want to encourage the guys who work with me to do the same thing,” Gilles says. “It’s a big part of our business model to be on the ground with our customers.”

It’s essential, not only to promote future SRT purchases, but also to encourage customers to “fleet out” their personal vehicles, he says.

In the past, SRT owners have become so smitten with Chrysler products that they purchased non-SRT vehicles, as well. “We’ve had stories of Viper owners buying Rams, minivans and cars for their kids just because of their SRT love affair,” Gilles says. “That’s the halo effect.”

While SRT customers have much in common, each vehicle in the lineup attracts a particular buyer. Grand Cherokee SRT8 buyers have a high income and “just love performance SUVs,” while Dodge Challenger and Charger customers are “blue-collar guys,” he says. Many Chrysler 300 buyers used to drive luxury cars such as Mercedes.

But not all Chrysler vehicles will receive the SRT treatment, which usually consists of performance enhancements and specialized body parts. Past SRTs, such as the Dodge Caliber, proved that slapping the badge on every vehicle in the lineup was not the most prudent move.

“I would say the Caliber was not our best work,” Gilles says. “We have to make sure the foundation product is already the ultimate it can be before we touch it. We want to make sure each of these cars is legendary.”

bpope@wardsauto.com