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Past Chrysler Group Concepts Offer Inside Glimpse of Brand Direction

Chrysler’s design team is not distracted by the pending deal to sell the auto maker, says Ralph Gilles.

DETROIT – The Chrysler Firepower concept car might be dead as a production model, but its interior will inspire future vehicles bearing the brand’s pentastar logo.

The design of the 2-seat supercar, unveiled in 2005 at Detroit’s North American International Auto Show, makes liberal use of chrome. This suggests an upscale look Chrysler will aspire to in the future, says Ralph Gilles, design vice president, whose responsibility includes color and trim.

The same “expressive” character was displayed in the Chrysler Nassau concept, which made its debut at this year’s Detroit auto show. But most show-goers “missed the point,” because they were distracted by the vehicle’s dramatic roofline and hatchback body style, says Gilles.

The products in today’s showrooms do not represent the attitude that currently exists at Chrysler, he adds, singling out the Chrysler Sebring, saying some of its interior surfaces are “harder than we’d like. We’re going to address that in the future.

“They were born in some very tough times,” he says after delivering the keynote address at the 2007 Ward’s Auto Interiors Show here. “We were trying to do the best with what we had.”

Boosted by support that comes directly from President and CEO Tom LaSorda, Gilles says Chrysler’s interior designers are inspired. And the proposed sale to Cerberus Capital Management LP is no distraction.

“Everybody’s feeling really positive about (the deal),” he tells reporters. “It’s a beneficial thing. Some of the guys have been through it before. But this one feels different. Definitely, there’s a huge aura.”

Meanwhile, Gilles says he is more satisfied with the Jeep Wrangler’s interior, but there is room to grow. Expect the brand to make use of a wider color palette, as suggested in 2001 by the Jeep Willys concept, he notes.

The design chief is effusive in his praise of interiors from General Motors Corp. and also singles out the Mondeo, Ford Motor Co.’s European sedan, as particularly stylish. “Ford knows how to do it when it wants to,” he says.

But industry-wide, interiors have become almost homogenous. “You can’t tell what’s European, what’s American, what’s Japanese,” Gilles says.

Meanwhile, he reveals Chrysler’s next-generation minivans, due out this fall, will not feature panoramic glass roofs but are designed to accommodate them if consumer demand is there.

The auto maker is “trying to feel the market out,” because so many recent concept vehicles feature panoramic roofs, Gilles says.

Chrysler decided to forgo the feature initially because consumers are accustomed to paying nominal prices for sunroofs, he notes. Faced with a $2,000 glass-roof option, “they freak out.”

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