Special Coverage

SAE World Congress

DETROIT – Despite the turbulent economy and forecasts for declining sales in the U.S. market, executives at the SAE World Congress here agree collaboration between auto makers and various aftermarket suppliers will continue to be a strong, vital part of the business.

As segments splinter into ever-greater niches, with fewer vehicle platforms, designing cars for customer personalization is a prerequisite for growth in today’s changing climate, says John Waraniak, vice president-vehicle technology-Specialty Equipment Market Assn.

“Early collaboration (between OEMs and the aftermarket) is the difference between reverse-engineering costs and built-in profits,” he says. The tenets of the process include designing for customization, engineering for modification, marketing for personalization and collaborating for growth.

Headlining this year’s effort is the release of the all-new ’08 Dodge Challenger SRT8 and the subsequent ’09 R/T and SXT variants this fall.

The nostalgic yet modern Challenger is “an itch we had to scratch” in terms of production, says Ralph Gilles, vice president-Jeep/Truck and Advanced Interior Design-Chrysler LLC.

Although the contemporary interpretation of the original ‘70 Challenger is based on the current Charger sedan, “we saw the aftermarket potential (of the platform) with the Chrysler 300 and other LX cars,” he says, referring to the new muscle coupe as a “creative canvas” for personalization.

The Challenger SRT8 already has plenty of aftermarket-brand equity, including 4-wheel Brembo brakes and a thundering Kicker sound system.

However, starting later this year on the Job One date for ’09 models, the auto maker will offer a plethora of dealer-installed Mopar add-ons for the car and its lesser brethren. Some developed in-house and others marketed through collaborative efforts with aftermarket specialists.

“We won’t create the build complexity of the original (Challenger), but we have plenty to work with,” says Kipp Owen, director-Street and Racing Technology Engineering, for Chrysler.

Owen says to expect special-edition “buzz” models to keep the car fresh with “upfit” modifications, such as gauges, intakes, exhausts, suspension packages and upgraded stereos.

In addition, Chrysler and Mopar are continuing to work on a factory drag-car variant of the Challenger, which will offer even greater opportunities for customization.

Race-prepped prototypes for the National Hot Rod Assn.’s Super Stock class currently are being built, Owen says. These will feature lightweight components and body-in-white structures, a shortened wheelbase, solid rear axle, cold-air induction and several crate-engine options.

Officials decline to give a timeframe but say requirements for the project are close to being finalized.

Other Chrysler vehicles with vast aftermarket pull include the iconic Jeep Wrangler with its slew of off-road followers, as well as the all-new ’09 Dodge Ram pickup, which Gilles characterizes as “begging to be customized.”

Among the benefits of such personalization efforts is the ability to produce a quicker profit with a larger margin, Waraniak says, as well as make a stronger and faster connection with the consumer.

Other auto makers, including Mazda Motor Corp. and General Motors Corp., are making serious progress to bolster the individuality of their vehicles for customers through the aftermarket, as well.

Mazda previously has teamed with Troy Lee Designs of Corona, CA, for special, motorcross-themed editions of its B-Series compact pickup. And the auto maker’s Mazdaspeed lineup of performance cars and parts quickly are becoming a “growing halo for the brand,” says Jack Stavana, director-accessory operations, for Mazda North America Operations.

Mazda’s most recent achievement is the internal and aftermarket collaboration for the roof rack on the CX-9 cross/utility vehicle. Installed at the U.S. port of entry with other accessories, provisions for the rack were built into the vehicle’s roof in Japan at an early stage in development.

The aftermarket supplies the components, making installation far easier than that for the Mazda6 wagon, which required a lengthy disassembly due to its lack of designed-in roof-rack mounts.

The port “is our final point of assembly,” Stavana says, “moving the customization closer to the (U.S.) consumer.”

MNAO plans to take its customizing efforts global by issuinga a performance body kit for the next-generation MX-5/Miata convertible. The kit is being developed with Roush Performance Products and will be the auto maker’s first aftermarket export, Stavana says.

GM also is leveraging its after-sales business with an eye toward individuality, including personalization, functional and “hard-core” accessories.

“We make ‘the bones’ good enough so that people want to customize them afterwards,” Ken Morris, executive director of GM’s Performance Div., says of GM’s most popular vehicles.

The auto maker employs an accessory design studio for evaluating new parts for production models but also has teams involved in creating concept vehicles in conjunction with aftermarket suppliers.

This multi-pronged effort includes GM’s High-Performance Vehicle Operations and racing unit. Results range from pre-production concepts to numerous accessories being offered the moment a new vehicle is on sale, such as the 75 unique parts that will be available for the upcoming ’09 Hummer H3T SUV.

Morris says this same integration with the aftermarket is key in the development of specialty vehicles such as the ’09 Cadillac CTS-V sedan, as well as performance packages in the vein of the Z0K club-racing option for the Pontiac Solstice roadster.

Regardless of the approach, auto makers view close ties with the aftermarket a key differentiator for their vehicles and essential to reaching customers.

And the sooner the collaboration in the development cycle the better, SEMA’s Waraniak says, adding, “Engineers can build in more design complexity in an afternoon than an army of aftermarket engineers can take out in the lifecycle of a vehicle.”

msutton@wardsauto.com