NOVI, MI – Chrysler’s emergence from bankruptcy in the summer of 2009 drew a collective sigh from much of metro Detroit.

But for a team of interior designers at Magna International, it was about that time they learned Chrysler had pulled ahead by a full eight months the complete restyling of the passenger compartment of the Dodge Journey cross/utility vehicle.

It was a hair-on-fire moment for teams at both Magna and Chrysler, but one that was necessary: The Journey was dead on arrival as an ’09 model and desperately needed resuscitation.

The hard work appears to have paid off: The new model has a significantly better interior, and the experience reflects improved supplier relations for Chrysler.

“It was aggressive,” recalls Jay McCarthy, senior program manager for Magna Exteriors and Interiors. “It was difficult to put a plan on paper that looked like it would work.”

In its first two years in the market, the Journey never cracked the top 10 in terms of sales in Ward’s Middle CUV segment.

A cheap-looking cabin with drab colors, excessive amounts of hard plastic and a general lack of style didn’t help the cause.

Customer feedback indicated a lack of perceived quality in the Journey interior, so Chrysler wanted an extreme makeover – and quickly, McCarthy says. Magna also was the Tier 1 integrator of the first-generation Journey cabin.

“Their focus was to really step up the quality and perceived quality of the customer,” McCarthy says at a “Bumper to Bumper” technology forum this week at Magna offices here.

“There were many tough decisions on features and content, but Chrysler was also very passionate about what they wanted,” he says.

Specifically, the instrument panel needed a clean look, which meant a 1-piece design. The original IP was disjointed and used applied parts that were plastic.

McCarthy sees the new dashboard as smooth and harmonious, tied together by a metallic-looking “spear” of trim that sweeps from A-pillar to A-pillar and integrates the air vents and the climate-control buttons. Chrome accents further accentuate the IP.

“Features the customer now touches – the cluster hood, center stack, areas around the glove box – these are the areas that we’ve come to know as the ocean-front property,” he says. “Chrysler really wanted to make sure they were first class and high class and soft-touch.”

Hard plastic – a mainstay in virtually every interior in every vehicle sector – still has a place in the new Journey, but McCarthy says the material now is a cut above.

The old plastic was molded-in-color and went to the assembly line without any aftertreatment. The new plastic is finished with metallic paint, giving it a more upscale appearance, particularly in the center console.

New content is abundant throughout the Journey, from the gauges, instrument cluster and steering wheel to the headliner (new color), pillars and display screens – even the trim in the cargo hold.

Among carryover parts are window switches, overhead consoles and LED overhead lighting, although new LEDs have been added to illuminate foot wells and map pockets.

Magna takes ownership of much of the Journey’s new interior, although the seats come from rival Johnson Controls and were improved for the new model. Interior door panels got a massive facelift. Hard panels have been replaced by soft surfaces everywhere, including a vinyl-wrapped bolster that seems to float, like a pillow on a bed.

For McCarthy, the Journey program represents an about-face for Chrysler’s interior strategy, as well as its relations with suppliers.

Nice interiors cost money, and the post-bankruptcy auto maker was under a budget, which posed a challenge.

“We were operating in a target-based program,” McCarthy says. “Chrysler set the targets of what they could afford with the new interior. We negotiated with them and came to an agreement early on in the program, understanding this is content and they acknowledged the pricing adjustments would need to be made.”

With this program, McCarthy recognized an agility within Chrysler he hadn’t seen before.

“It was a great program from the standpoint that nothing sat too long,” he says. “We saw Chrysler making decisions that needed to be made quickly, and they were making the right decisions.”

The 8-month pull-ahead forced Magna to cut corners, but it didn’t jeopardize the program. “We eliminated prototype tools,” which is much like a trapeze artist ditching the net. “We went straight to production tools; typically we would look at that as a liability. But in this case I think it served us well.”

With production tools, Magna was able to make the necessary refinements. “We had time to go through about four iterations of fits and finishes to resolve issues we had from the initial production tools,” he says. “Typically, that might happen in the first month or two of production.”

It helped that Magna designers “inserted ourselves” into Chrysler’s studio, to be part of the discussions. When Magna staffers stood their ground on certain issues, their Chrysler counterparts relented. For instance, instead of a 1-piece instrument panel, there was talk of a simpler solution that would use a separate piece as a hard brow over the instrument cluster. “We said, ‘No, the perception of this IP is defined by what’s right in front of the driver’s face and the passenger’s face,’” McCarthy says. “They worked with us on many styling changes to satisfy tooling requirements so we could preserve that appearance.”

He describes the Chrysler relationship as “quite healthy. When they asked us a question, they respected our input. And I think it really turned out to be a good product.”

tmurphy@wardsauto.com