Even after its dive into bankruptcy last year, Chrysler Group LLC was riding too high for its own good, according to Ralph Gilles, senior vice president-product design.

Comparisons proved it, Gilles says. Chrysler’s competitors were rolling out vehicles that ran lower to the ground.

So the auto maker explored why it should or should not lower its vehicles. “And there are more pros than cons,” Gilles tells Ward’s.

“Lowering the car looks better. It looks a little bit smarter. It handles better. And more important is the fuel economy.”

For the ’11 model year, the all-wheel-drive version of the Dodge Charger sport sedan, the Dodge Avenger and Chrysler 200 midsize sedans, the Dodge Grand Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country minivans and – insiders say – the yet-to-be-unveiled Chrysler 300 fullsize sedan are lower than their predecessors.

And get used to it, Gilles says, adding low profiles will become a hallmark of Chrysler Group vehicles.

“We can do it either with aero bits, like on the Citadel and Crew,” he says, referring to trim levels on the all-new ’11 Dodge Durango SUV.

“We lowered the fascia as low as possible. We don’t have the same approach angle as the Grand Cherokee,” Gilles says of the Durango’s Jeep-brand platform-mate. “It was a conscious effort to improve fuel economy.”

On the sporty RT model, the Durango rides nearly 1 in. (2.54 cm) lower than the entry-level Express trim “to get the handling that much better.”

Gilles says he could use 15 additional designers to help deliver the 15 vehicles – most of which are all-new and based on platforms supplied by alliance partner Fiat Automobiles SpA – scheduled for introduction between 2012 and 2014.

And Chrysler’s design chief says the auto maker is actively, but cautiously, looking for design talent.

“I could hire, probably, 15 designers tomorrow,” Gilles says. “But I can’t because we’re so picky. We’re so, so picky now. They’re kind of hard to find, the kind of people we’re looking for.

“I’m not just looking for a great designer,” he says, adding Chrysler has been conducting interviews and accepting portfolios. “I’m looking for a spirit. I’m looking for a future leader. I’m looking for someone who’s going to fit into our culture. Because our culture is very, very different now.

“There’s virtually no sense of hierarchy anymore in the company, which is awesome. And for a creative person, that’s a great environment. Because we can’t have egomaniacs in my shop.”

Fiat’s influence has done much to break down barriers between management levels and between managers and front-line employees.

A directive from CEO Sergio Marchionne led to the official demise of the time-honored “chief engineer” title, in favor of the term “model responsible,” followed by a vehicle nameplate. The intent is to instill accountability.

Bill Barranco, principal of California-based designer recruiting agency, Autovision Design Network Inc., says a no-nonsense atmosphere represents a key selling feature when auto makers knock on a candidate’s door.

He says Chrysler, in particular, boasts a “family atmosphere” marked by open collaboration.

“Every car designer in the Chrysler studio needs to know how to do everything all at once, all the time,” Barranco tells Ward’s. “You’ve got to know your Photoshop and be prepared to roll up your sleeves and help with the clay and then get on the PowerPoint presentation.”

In 2008, Chrysler closed its acclaimed Pacifica studio in California to consolidate design efforts in Auburn Hills, MI, home to the auto maker’s corporate headquarters.

Chrysler has adapted to the loss through diversity, Gilles says, adding: “We (employ) a great cross-section of people from all over the world.”

Gilles reiterates he’s not rushing to fill design positions. “If it takes me two years, it takes me two years,” he says. “I’d rather find the right people.”

Barranco suggests such patience is well-advised because every auto maker is looking for the same type of candidate.

“I don’t know anybody in the car design business that is not looking for somebody really special,” he says. “Nobody says they’re looking for an average designer with mediocre skills.”

emayne@wardsauto.com