LAS VEGAS – After two months on the job as Chrysler LLC vice president and chief marketing officer, Deborah Meyer recently suffered an extreme case of culture shock here.

Meyer spent six years working in marketing communications for Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc., most recently as vice president-marketing for its Lexus luxury division.

Toyota and Lexus are extremely conservative organizations, so Meyer probably thought she’d entered an alternate universe when she arrived at Chrysler’s Mopar stand for a press conference at last week’s Specialty Equipment Market Assn. show.

The SEMA expo in the world’s glitziest city is an annual event that shuns dress codes and the notion of political correctness. Scantily clad women are as much a part of the show as chrome headers, ground-effects lighting kits and diamond-encrusted wheels.

Hundreds of Mopar gearheads – many dressed simply in jeans and T-shirts – packed the stand to hear about the latest goodies available from Chrysler’s performance parts division.

The crowd also buzzed with the possibility of a factory-ready drag-racing version of the Dodge Challenger after the muscle car launches next year in Brampton, ON, Canada.

But Meyer took the entire event in stride, happily mingling with the crowd and fully recognizing the importance of Mopar as a profit center, thanks to customers willing to spend big bucks for accessories to boost the performance of their Dodge, Chrysler and Jeep vehicles.

She admits the late-afternoon Mopar event – capped with a free-flowing keg of beer for attendees – demonstrated the cultural differences between Chrysler and Lexus.

“You wouldn’t have a keg at a press conference,” Meyer says with a chuckle of her previous employer. “That’s the beauty of it. That’s why it (Chrysler) is such a great company and so much fun. The culture is more irreverent. It’s fast moving, and it’s willing to take risks and try things. That’s what we need right now.”

Her new Chrysler post serves as a homecoming: She grew up in Michigan, and her father was a Chrysler plant manager. “So it’s sort of in my blood, and it was good timing,” Meyer says.

She’s been to the SEMA show several times and always enjoys taking in the customization industry’s biggest event of the year. “I come here because I think this sets the trend for the auto industry – what will be hot with the youth. It’s all here,” Meyer says.

Her former company, Lexus, exhibited for the first time at this year’s SEMA show, holding a press conference to launch the 416-hp IS F sport sedan, as well as the F-Sport line of accessories for other Lexus vehicles. Meyer says Mopar and the iconic Hemi V-8 that helped create the muscle-car culture of the 1970s can play a role as Chrysler sets out to restructure itself for long-term profitability, under new owners Cerberus Capital Management LP.

“You take a brand like Mopar or the Hemi, and it definitely has a huge history and heritage, but we have to retool it for the next generation and develop it to meet their needs,” Meyer says. “Any brand that’s good and lasts a long time should be able to do that.”

Chrysler resurrected the Hemi, with its hemispherical combustion chamber, for the ’03 model year, and the throaty, torque-rich engine quickly became a marketing success story that helped sell Ram pickups, Durango and Jeep SUVs and the popular 300C sedan, among other vehicles.

With high gas prices, consumers are thinking twice about purchasing thirsty V-8s such as the Hemi. But Meyer says the Hemi can remain a marketing icon, as long as it evolves and takes advantage of fuel-efficient technologies, such as Chrysler’s cylinder deactivation strategy, known as Multi-Displacement System (MDS).

“The definition of power and performance is clearly evolving for this culture (at SEMA) and actually globally,” she says. “But people are still looking for responsiveness, and they want a certain level of performance. There’s room for the Hemi, but clearly it has to evolve.”

At SEMA, for instance, Mopar was marketing new parts for second-generation Hemi engines, including lightweight aluminum blocks (while production versions still use cast iron).

But the SEMA crowd historically does not always think first of fuel efficiency. For muscle-car enthusiasts, Mopar also is offering a new version of the 1966-71 aluminum dual quad intake manifold to mate up with 4-barrel carburetors in crate versions of the legendary 426 cu.-in. (7.0L) Hemi V-8. Meyer says she doesn’t consider it her job to get Mopar customers thinking about fuel efficiency, rather than how to squeeze out another 20 hp.

“My job is to help the company respond to what different customer segments need,” she says. “For us, this is a very core segment.”

Rob Richard, director-sales and marketing for Mopar, says the company is working on newer, smaller products for younger, more ecologically minded tuners.

“Take your stock 4-cyl. engine,” Richard says. “You can do a lot of different things to it to add power, and you still get great fuel economy.”

Mopar also has embraced the high-powered SRT4 versions of the Neon subcompact and its replacement, the Caliber.

But Richard says the Hemi has a bright future long term, especially since MDS can push fuel economy well above 20 mpg (11.7 L/100 km). For ’08, Chrysler has expanded the system’s range.

“There will always be the enthusiast crowd out there – people who understand what Hemi is,” he says. “We’re getting great mileage.”

tmurphy@wardsauto.com