Ralph Gilles,Group LLC’s top designer and the CEO of the Dodge brand, says the auto maker no longer is satisfied with churning out “one-hit wonders,” such as the Chrysler 300C, a vehicle he penned that was a runaway success when it launched in 2004.
“I know what it took to do that, and it’s not easy,” he tells Ward’s in an interview. “It’s like running a marathon every day of your life to make a product that’s succinctly good and is forward-thinking. But it’s possible.
“My job as a leader is to motivate my staff to treat every day like it’s their last and every product like it’s their last, to really put your heart and soul into it,” Gilles adds. “That’s what we’re seeing now at.”
Gilles, who joined Chrysler in 1992, says he has faith the auto maker is moving in the right direction, following last summer’s bankruptcy.
One reason for his newfound optimism is Chrysler’s tie-up withAutomobiles SpA, which brought the leadership of Sergio Marchionne, whom Gilles calls the “greatest CEO” he has ever worked for.
“He’s special. He’s the hardest-working man ever seen,” Gilles says of Marchionne. “He globetrots around the world and brings lessons learned (back to Chrysler).”
Gilles should be able to recognize a good CEO, having worked under eight of them during his tenure at Chrysler. Although he declines to point fingers at previous leadership regimes, includingAG and Cerberus Capital Management LP, he hints that conditions were less than stellar.
“I lived through the DaimlerChrysler stage, and they were arguably interesting times. But I need a couch and psychiatrist to speak about those days,” he says. “I learned a lot about leadership – the good, bad and the ugly.
Marchionne’s plan, Gilles says, is one “I believe in. I’m no longer bludgeoning my head against brick walls. Everyone is being heard, and the engineers are allowed to do what they’ve always wanted to do.
“I’ve lived where I looked up and questioned leadership, their motives and their tremendous salaries,” he notes. “Now it’s 100% different. Leadership must be the culture and not just talked about.”
Gilles also knows it will take outstanding products for Chrysler to truly recover, and he vows upcoming new cars, trucks and cross/utility vehicles will live up to the challenge.
One of the advantages of Chrysler’s partnership withis access to the Italian auto maker’s array of high-efficiency, small-displacement engines. Additionally, Fiat has several vehicles it may bring from Europe to fill “gaping holes” in Chrysler’s truck-heavy lineup, Gilles says.
A particularly promising vehicle is the Fiat 500 B-car, which has taken Europe by storm since its launch in 2007 and will arrive in the U.S. next year.
The Fiat 500 “is being engineered here for American tastes, but it’s still the same car,” Gilles says.
On the Dodge side, space occupied by the Caliber C-segment hatchback, slated to disappear in 2012, will be taken up the same year by the brand with a vehicle based on Fiat’s C-segment platform, along with a derivative of a Fiat B-car. Other plans for Chrysler and Dodge call for the introduction of new CUVs.
A new Chrysler 300 sedan also is in the works, with a U.S. launch date set for December. “The (300C) to me is all about how popular culture can be an amazing thing,” Gilles says. “It does nothing less than reflect the American dream.”
Chrysler’s future C-segment vehicles will be based on the Alfa Romeo Giulietta sports sedan, Gilles says.
The (Giulietta) is “launching in Europe as we speak,” he says. “It’s going to loosely define our next-generation products. Ultimately, we’ll have a lineup that’s balanced, something we haven’t had in years.”
Both the Chrysler Sebring and Dodge Avenger are due for complete overhauls, he says.
As Ward’s first reported in May, the next-generation Chrysler Sebring sedan will be based on a new platform that will debut next year in Europe as the underpinnings of the Giulietta, Alfa Romeo previously dubbed the Milano.
The platform, dubbed C-EVO, is scalable, enabling it to accommodate the all-new C-segment Giulietta and the Sebring, which currently competes among D-segment vehicles.
“Both (the) Sebring and Avenger are going on the operating table, basically,” Gilles says. “It’s not going to be just cosmetic. They are truly getting an overhaul. They’ll feel and drive differently.”
By 2014, Chrysler’s car-based programs will go from 57% today to 68%, a mix he says is “more in tune with the market.”
Gilles also hints at the return of the Dodge Viper sports car, which is scheduled to be dropped from the lineup this summer. While stopping short of guaranteeing a return of the halo car, he notes the nameplate carries a cachet.
“There are 82,000 kids that don’t have a (driver’s) license that play video games with the Dodge Viper,” he says.
In all, Gilles says Chrysler plans to launch 21 new models in the next four years. The auto maker’s plan to re-badge its trucks as Ram, while retaining the Dodge moniker for cars and CUVs, is going smoothly and has been well-received by both dealers and consumers.
“The dealers at first had the same questions that consumers ultimately had, but they are starting to get it now – that creative is rolling,” Gilles says. “It’s something we believe in.”
Truck buyers should readily accept the new branding, as the Ram’s-head logo has been affixed to the lineup for decades.
When it comes to Dodge cars, he says it’s important they be differentiated from Chrysler’s lineup. “They’re going to feel very different,” Gilles says. “I’ve asked the engineering team to come up with different ride and handling characteristics. I want all Dodge products to have a sportier demeanor to them, a more connected feeling.”
But while Dodge cars will have a more “youthful” feeling to them, they won’t necessarily be marketed towards younger people, he says, adding “you can be 65 years old and behave like a 25-year-old.
“It’s really the way (consumers) carry themselves. What they’re in to,” Gilles says. “Their car is an extension of their personalities, not just transportation.”
The differentiation between Dodge and Chrysler products will be extended through the minivan lineup. In the past, the Dodge Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country were competitors.
“Differentiating minivans is going to take us a little longer to do, but the strategy is to change the personalities,” Gilles says. “I’m experimenting now, and (the strategy) will come to life in a few months.”