DETROIT – The redesigned Dodge Ram pickup, due out next year, will be the first vehicle to benefit from Chrysler Group’s new strategy to increase interior-design lead times.

Ralph Gilles, design vice president with responsibility for color and trim, says during his keynote address at the 2007 Ward’s Auto Interiors Show here today that Chrysler is committed to pull ahead its interior-design programs by 40-60 weeks.

“This is causing a complete rethink within the company,” he reveals.

The goal of the strategy is to encourage innovation from the supply community, adds Gilles, who also has responsibility for Chrysler’s truck and Jeep-brand design.

Meanwhile, Chrysler is being more thoughtful regarding designer assignments. “We’re hiring people that only want to be interior designers,” he says, noting past practice was to rapidly cycle personnel through the design studio.

Earlier this year, the auto maker created its first dedicated interior studio to facilitate its new design direction, he notes.

In terms of boosting sales and customer satisfaction, “interiors are becoming a battlefield,” Gilles says. “I want people who are interested in interiors and (in) becoming experts.”

He dismisses the notion that pickup interiors have become too refined, given the segment’s work-truck pedigree.

“We’ve balanced the luxury and function capabilities,” Gilles says of the new Ram.

“We’ve noticed that (General Motors Corp.) has done very luxurious interiors. Our design, we have a lot of range. We can tune it. The trick of the new design was modularity. You can make it a work truck. You can also make it a car to go on the town with.”

Among the challenges facing interior design are rising material costs, marketplace pressure to compress overall lead times and the “explosion” of features. “I’m running out of places to put switches,” Gilles says.

Emerging markets also pose challenges due to the learning curve required to discover customer preferences.

“China can’t get enough of jewelry in the car,” Gilles says, referring to features such as ornate clocks and glitzy bezels. However, Chinese car buyers studiously avoid black interiors.

emayne@wardsauto.com