CHELSEA, MI – Ralph Gilles is quick to dismiss any notion that Fiat’s decision to widen Chrysler’s brand portfolio is a test of who might eventually head the Italian auto maker’s U.S. arm.

Rather, Gilles says, he is excited to be spearheading the auto maker’s high-performance SRT division, which was spun off in 2011.

“I’m a little more ahead than I thought we’d be,” Gilles, who still serves as Chrysler’s vice president of product design, tells WardsAuto during a media backgrounder here.

SRT, which stands for Street and Racing Technology, a longtime Chrysler trim package, is the auto maker’s newest brand, following the spinoff of Ram pickups from the Dodge Div. in 2009 and last year’s re-introduction of the Fiat brand to North America.

Considering the trend of trimming brands in recent years – Ford with Mercury, General Motors with Oldsmobile, Saturn, Pontiac and Hummer – and the move toward consolidation, Chrysler’s decision to expand was a surprise to industry watchers.

But Gilles says SRT presents an opportunity to cultivate a following that began in the 1960s. “It’s legitimizing something that’s been going on for decades.”

The Viper, previously a Dodge vehicle, will re-emerge under SRT for model-year ’13.

Four other vehicles in Chrysler’s lineup, the Jeep Grand Cherokee, Chrysler 300, Dodge Charger and Dodge Challenger, already have been re-engineered with SRT technology, meaning everything’s bigger, faster and not for the faint of heart or fuel-conscious.

“The people that know our cars, they can see a quarter of the cars and know it’s an SRT,” Gilles says of the brand’s niche following. Compared with sporty trim packages on other Chrysler vehicles, “those people are enthusiasts but not necessarily obsessive.”

 As for the SRT and Ram distinctions, “We’re fine-tuning the brands to allow us to stand out.  The Ram marketing could never work with Dodge.”

For the evolution of SRT, Gilles says to expect distinctive exterior colors and interior trims “to match the owner much closer.” The SRT owner has no age limit, he adds. “It’s about mindset.”

Company policy forbids Chrysler employees from discussing future product, but Gilles says he is intrigued by the idea of a wholly developed SRT product not derived from a current Chrysler model. However, he adds, “There can’t be a better flagship than the Viper.”

Fans already are clamoring for an SRT version of the Dodge Dart, which launched last month, Gilles says. “My Twitter is exploding with Dart suggestions all the time.”

afoley@wardsauto.com