TRAVERSE CITY, MI – Can Chrysler continue building design momentum after earning accolades for its recently revamped vehicle interiors?

One top executive hopes so, warning young designers on his team to “stay humble” and “not sit on our laurels.”

Addressing the Center for Automotive Research’s Management Briefing Seminars, Klaus Busse, head of interior design, says Chrysler still is recovering from its critically panned vehicle interiors of less than a decade ago and can’t afford any backsliding.

The Wall Street Journal said our interiors were (cast in plastic) like a Chinese water pistol,” Busse says, pointing to a slide of a dull gray Dodge Ram cabin. That’s before he highlights the success of the Dodge Dart, a 2012 Ward’s 10 Best Interiors winner.

“We tried to break the mold of the gray boxes,” Busse says. “For a while, we banned gray because we had such a bad reputation for an entire generation of vehicles.”

The auto maker is embracing gray once again, but now brightens up its interiors with different colors in stitching and other accents.

For the Dart, says Busse, dressed in a black Puma track jacket and trim cargo jeans, inspiration was taken from the fashion industry. Positioning outside-the-box colors against the gray – and black, white and beige, too – keeps things interesting and the compact atop its segment, he contends.

“Let’s be glamorous. Let’s be fun at life,” Busse says, noting that after the company’s 2009 bankruptcy, designers stopped wearing suits to work in an effort to loosen up.

Busse says Chrysler is working toward styling that caters to all the driver’s senses, something “money can’t buy.” Touch and feel is paramount and has to be engaging.

“All these surfaces are very round and inviting to the touch,” he says from behind the wheel of a Dart. “This super-soft material for a C-segment car is very unique.”

Busse tells reporters after his presentation that similar design language will migrate to future Chrysler vehicles, though there is no timeline for when drivers will see those changes.

“The problem we had in the past is that we had surfaces that looked hard. That’s a mistake that we will never do again,” he says. “There’s nothing wrong with gray. There’s nothing wrong with plastic. It’s what you do with it.”

For the Dart, Chrysler’s partnership with Fiat can be seen under the hood. That’s not true of the interior, which was designed entirely at Chrysler’s Auburn Hills, MI, headquarters, a process unlikely to change with future Chrysler products, Busse says.

“We’re not trying to be a better version of a German product or a Japanese product. We’re proud to be an American company.”

afoley@wardsauto.com