Chrysler, Fiat Sharing Platforms, But Interior Designs Remain on Separate Paths

“There is a lot of smart design we can do,” Chrysler’s design chief says. “There’s a lot things that can be common, (items) you don’t see that don’t hurt the design.”

James M. Amend, Senior Editor

May 17, 2011

4 Min Read
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2011 Wards Interior Conference

DEARBORN, MI – Chrysler design chief and Dodge brand CEO Ralph Gilles credits a can-do attitude from boss Sergio Marchionne for shifting the auto maker’s interior-design improvements into high gear, and pledges platform-sharing with Fiat will not jeopardize important brand identities.

“Cross-pollination, in terms of design, we’re chatting a lot. That’s it,” Gilles says after addressing the annual Ward’s Auto Interiors Conference here earlier today.

“Me and (Fiat design chief Lorenzo) Ramaciotti get along famously. We compare notes every week, an open book, just to make sure we’re on top of each other,” he tells Ward’s.

But it stops there. “We’ve both got enough work to do.” Nonetheless, the auto makers, united two years ago to pull Chrysler out of bankruptcy, continue to place a premium on platform sharing.

Leveraging common architectures plays a key role in the cost-savings strategy behind the Fiat link and, ultimately, Chrysler’s long-term health. But as international marriages in the auto industry have borne out before, the best-laid plans do not always play out.

“We are sharing platforms; there is a lot of smart design we can do,” Gilles says. “There’s a lot of things that can be common, (items) you don’t see that don’t hurt the design theme and we can collaborate on and start to merge us into a great team.”

Gilles declines to elaborate on elements consumers do see that Chrysler and Fiat might share in the future to further drive down costs. “All I can tell is you the branding will be protected,” he says.

Gilles speaks to the conference here about the remarkable turnaround of Chrysler’s interiors, frequently grimacing while showing slides of recent products, such as the previous-generation Dodge Journey’s instrument panel. He compares it to an Omni Horizon.

American design can be legendary, Ralph Gilles says.

In the last three years, however, Chrysler has booked three Ward’s 10 Best Interiors awards, including two this year with the Jeep Grand Cherokee Overland Summit SUV and Dodge Charger sedan.

Gilles says the revolution really began with the ’09 Ram pickup, an award-winner that year, and started gaining momentum when work began on the next-generation Jeep Grand Cherokee around the same time.

But he says the dynamic Marchionne, also head of Fiat, put the effort over the top. When he arrived in 2009, 12 of Chrysler’s 16 products were in need of interior upgrades.

“(Marchionne) said, ‘I want the love on all these,’” Gilles recalls, noting the CEO also wanted investment in the Chrysler Sebring, now known as the 200, at a time when most at the auto maker had given up on the car.

“We figured, let’s just keep selling the Sebring,” Gilles says. “He said, ‘No, let’s fix it. Exterior, interior, ride and drive; the whole car.’ And we did just that. When you see a leader ask for that, push for that, it inspires everybody.”

Today, interiors have gone from a liability for Chrysler’s brands to a selling point on the showroom floor, he says.

“So far, at least from the dealers’ mouths, it’s been amazing,” Gilles says, speaking on anecdotal evidence and promising data to back it up. “People sit in them in disbelief, especially loyal owners coming in from product 3- or 4-years old. Women, especially; they are more sensitive to interior design and comfort.”

Gilles also tells journalists the auto maker places a greater premium these days on bringing forward innovation to save money and enhance design.

“There is definitely more cost in the interiors, without a doubt,” he says. “And it’s no less than our competitors,” giving over that Chrysler did spend more in certain areas to win back customers.

Gilles cites as one example the stamped aluminum inside the Charger. “Unusual for a $26,000 car,” he says. “But we wanted to make a statement about our conviction to interiors design.”

Auto makers always are looking for those sorts of ideas, and now more than ever. The new Charger, for instance, carries $2,600 more in content, yet the sticker price remains the same as its model-year predecessor.

“Cars, even the smallest ones, are becoming more heavily contented now,” Gilles says. “At the same time, the customer isn’t willing to pay for more. They just want more. We’ve gotten addicted to the content, and now we’ve got to find more and more clever ways to manage it.”

In his address to conference attendees, he stresses the importance of American design emerging from making commodities to again fashioning icons.

“Respect American design,” Gilles tells designers here, revealing he constantly sketches design notes during his travels to hand out to key staffers later.

“We think a lot of great things come from Europe, and they do,” he says. “But a lot come from this country, too. We can be legendary, not just competitive.”

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