DETROIT – The ’13 Dodge Dart promises not only to change the landscape of the U.S. car market, but also the lot where Chrysler designers park.
“If you look at our parking lot, unfortunately, there’s a lot of competitive vehicles,” Chrysler design chief Ralph Gilles tellsWardsAuto. “We make great family cars. We make great SUVs, great trucks. When it comes to cars that (young designers) want to drive, they end up buying GTIs.”
Expect the Dart to change all that Gilles says in a wide-ranging interview, suggesting the C-car’s second-quarter launch also reinforces the brand-driven design strategy he is implementing at Chrysler.
Each brand has its own studio where designers steep themselves in the defining attributes of Chrysler, Dodge, Ram and Jeep vehicles. SRT also has its own studio, led by Mark Trostle.
Chrysler wanted the Dart to convey the brashness evident in its Dodge stablemate, the Charger fullsize sports sedan. “I think we found a way,” Gilles says, crediting the work of exterior designer Tim Doyle and interior designer Winnie Cheung.
However, the Dart also portends appeal for consumers in family-car market. Deft packaging makes the car “a catch-all.”
Millenials and Boomers are “polar opposites,” Gilles notes, but early feedback suggests the Dart R/T’s black motif resonates with the former, while the Limited’s neutral color scheme and polished-metal accents appeal to the latter.
“We learned that lesson in our truck world – how to make one vehicle appeal to such a broad audience.”
It’s no coincidence, perhaps, that the Dodge and Ram studios are shepherded by Joe Dehner.
Gilles is mum on activities in the Jeep studio, which is run by Mark Allen. But when asked what’s happening in the Brandon Faurote-led Chrysler studio, he points to the 700C concept vehicle.
The prospective next-generation minivan was unveiled here last week at the North American International Auto Show. However, Chrysler pulled the sheet off without fanfare or embellishment.
“We haven’t done this in a long time where we’ve just plunked a car down,” Gilles says. “Can’t remember the last time.”
Chrysler is using the avant-garde concept to solicit public opinion. And, Gilles promises, “We’re going to listen.”
But the public had better make its feelings known quickly. In 2009, Chrysler envisioned a 2014 launch of a next-gen minivan, but CEO Sergio Marchionne since has said the vehicle’s development must be accelerated.
Gilles is neither surprised nor apprehensive, saying Marchionne’s aggressiveness has inspired within Chrysler a “Navy Seal” mentality for rapid response.
Marchionne also has said he envisions a 2-tier market strategy that features a conventionally sized minivan and a second smaller vehicle. Against this backdrop, he recently reveals a strong desire to launch a B-segment Fiat-brand people-mover by year’s end.
Chrysler’s dealer network handles Fiat distribution in North America.
Within hours of the 700C’s unveiling, Gilles saw an “extremely hip-looking couple” excitedly clamber over a barricade for a close-up view. “They were trying to get in!” he says, clearly pleased that the concept evoked emotion. “That’s what we try to do.”
And Chrysler carefully is leveraging all its resources to determine how best to pull the emotional strings of consumers.
About a year ago, the auto maker deployed designers to establish a “think-tank” in California, Gilles says. Their observations of various trends, gleaned partly from outreach exercises with consumer-product manufacturers, inform designers at Chrysler’s headquarters in Auburn Hills, MI.
Chrysler does not confirm a WardsAuto tipster’s report that the auto maker also employs a cultural anthropologist at the site.