CHELSEA, MI – Under Tim Kuniskis’ watch, Fiat returned to the U.S. with a stable of 500 subcompacts, a dealer network of more than 200 stores and consistent month-to-month sales gains over the past three years.

Named in April as CEO of the venerable Dodge marque following two years as head of the Fiat brand in North America, Kuniskis has gone from relaunching a brand to remaining true to a long-standing one. He takes the reins from Reid Bigland, who moved to CEO of the Ram brand; former chief of Chrysler’s California operations Jason Stoicevich steps in at Fiat.

“When I went over to Fiat, it was exciting,” Kuniskis, a few months into his new position, tells WardsAuto on the sidelines of a Chrysler product showcase. “Who gets to work on a brand-new brand, launch a brand-new brand that a lot of people don’t know about?

“Compared to a 100-year-old brand – totally different story,” he says of Dodge, which built its first automobile in 1915. “Here’s a 100-year brand, very well-established. Reid’s got it going in an amazing direction.

“I’m a huge performance enthusiast myself,” Kuniskis adds. “It’s a huge honor for me to look over a brand and guide the brand into the future. That’s 100 years of history that someone’s been trusted with.”

The executive promises a slate of new product for Dodge but is careful not to reveal specifics. “This is such a terrible situation for me, because we have stuff coming that I can’t tell you (about). I wish I could.”

Kuniskis does speak in detail about one key product launch: the forthcoming ’14 Durango going on sale in the fourth quarter. The SUV was unveiled in March at the New York auto show.

“In my opinion, it will be the best in the market,” he says of the new Durango.

The SUV receives modified front and rear fascia and a completely redone interior, and is the next in Chrysler’s stable to take an 8-speed transmission designed by ZF. The Grand Cherokee, built alongside the Durango at Chrysler’s Jefferson Ave. Detroit plant, was the first of the large SUVs to employ the gearbox.

Kuniskis also is tasked with helping the Dart sedan continue to gain a foothold in the market. Launched last year as a ’13 model, the compact has yet to make a sales splash, but the brand chief assures the model is a on a positive track.

The sluggish start can be attributed in part to Chrysler’s overall performance in the compact market in the last decade, which hit peak levels with the Dodge Neon but cooled with the Caliber hatchback.

“The Dart is a huge product for us,” Kuniskis says. “We didn’t have anything in that segment for seven years. You’re competing against cars that have been in the market for well over 40 years.”

The top-level management shuffle reflects significant changes at Chrysler, as brands within the fold find identities and the industry overall caters to increasingly discerning customers.

Chrysler began ramping up marketing for its SRT performance brand last month, targeting the sort of  enthusiasts long associated with the Dodge brand.

But Kuniskis says SRT complements Dodge, and draws a parallel with rival auto makers’ high-performance sub-brands: “If you look at what BMW’s M is, it’s the ultimate version of the BMW. If you look at AMG, it’s the ultimate version of the Mercedes-Benz. If you look at S, it’s the ultimate version of the Audi.

“I see SRT as an extension of Dodge.”

Kuniskis himself owns a Challenger R/T and an SRT-tuned Challenger. “It’s just a beautiful, seamless transition to that upper range. I don’t think customers differentiate the two.

“People in the (automotive) industry, we get bogged down in segments, statistics and things like that. (But) the average consumer says, ‘Oh my God, that is a top-of-the-line Challenger, I want that.’ They don’t go, ‘I’ll take an SRT, but I won’t take a Dodge.’”

Dodge devotees, Kuniskis says, are loyal buyers who have come to know the performance ethos built around the brand over the past few decades, charging executives with maintaining that character.

“The brand is bigger than a person,” he says. “You’ve got a 100-year history of what the brand is, and customers have an expectation. Now you can tweak that and you can change that, but you have to be true to what that essence of the brand is.”

afoley@wardsauto.com