Q&A: Chrysler's Gilles aims to bring sexy back to car design

Ralph Gilles, president and CEO SRT Brand and Motorsports, announces the Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT during the 2013 North American International Auto Show at Cobo Center on Monday, January 14, 2013, in Detroit, Michigan. (Mandi Wright/Detroit Free Press/MCT)

Modern car design is a difficult balancing act that weighs style against substance; price versus performance; safety, fuel efficiency and other government regulations, in vehicles that too often fail to inspire.

But Ralph Gilles has tasked himself with bringing the sexy back to Chrysler. Responsible for two of the company's most eye-catching modern vehicles – the brutishly elegant 300 sedan and slinky Viper super car – the 44-year-old senior vice president of design for the Detroit automaker is turning his eye to more organic, alluring shapes.

The Orange County Register caught up with Gilles while he was in Irvine, Calif., last month to chat about the future of Chrysler design.

QUESTION: In your opinion, what's the sexiest car ever made?

ANSWER: The convertible E-Type Jag.

Q: What, in your opinion, is the sexiest Chrysler ever made?

A: Very tough question. I think the modern SRT Viper is the epitome of sexy. That was our goal. However, I feel strange drawing from my era. I love the Chrysler Ghia Falcon Concept. I have a huge sweet spot in my heart for the beautiful '68, '69, '70 Dodge Charger.

Q: You use some of the real estate in your Twitter bio to say, "Love how cool cars bring great people together." Why is that important?

A: It's the idea that a vehicle makes you have something in common. You could have been a geek in school or a football star, but if you own a car, it belongs to a club. As a designer, it's horrifying to think of a car as an appliance. That's the No. 1 most sickening thought to me.

Q: You oversaw the redesign of the Chrysler 200 sedan, which will have a far more elegant profile than the outgoing model when it goes on sale later this month. What were your design goals?

A: It was the company's goal, not just mine, to create an absolutely legitimate vehicle in the segment. We've always been chasers. The 200 has feature content second to no one in terms of safety and creature comfort, so it was taking all that and wrapping it in an exterior that looked more expensive than it was. The interior was inspired by the Eames chair, which is beautifully simple and still looks good to this day. We want the interior to be something that looks good for 10 to 15 years. Finally, we designed it with America in mind. I know that sounds patriotic, but we know we represent this country's competencies, so if we're going to campaign that we're from Detroit, we want to make sure it's good stuff.

Q: Is the exterior or interior design of a car more important?

A: That's tough. Pushed to the absolute, the interior, believe it or not. The exterior can't be bad. It has to be competent and handsome, but the interior is where you spend all your time. The exterior is the conversation starter. The interior is the deal closer.

Q: Now that Chrysler is fully owned by Fiat, how is Italy influencing the Chrysler lineup in the U.S.?

A: Just because we consummated the relationship recently, people forget we've been dating 4 { years. We've been together a long time and have come to know each other very well. We're very like-minded and having a blast.

Q: There's a lot of Internet chatter about certain Fiat models coming to the U.S. Will the crossover version of the 500, the 500X, make its way stateside?

A: I can't talk about that.

Q: Will the Lancia Ypsilon hatchback come to the U.S. as a Fiat product?

A: I can't talk about it.

Q: I think I already know the answer, but how about the Fiat Doblo compact van?

A: I can't talk about it.

Q: But you can talk about the Jeep Renegade introduced last month in Geneva.

A: It's very exciting. The Jeep Renegade is a love child of the two companies – engineered in Italy but built in the U.S. In terms of design, the vehicle was meant to really create a new DNA strain of the smallest Jeep we've ever worked on. It was a challenge, because we have these expansively huge interiors usually. We had to have a great conversation with our friends in Italy about how to package a small car. It was meant to have an immediate nostalgic effect but also be extremely modern.

Q: That always seems difficult – progressing an iconic design so it resonates with multiple generations.

A: Men and women have been attracted to each other for hundreds of thousands of years. There are paradigms in the human mind that make certain things happen. I'm a big believer in organic design. Look at Viper, 200 – they're shapes that look like they grew the way they are. They aren't necessarily mechanical. You contemplate a mechanical object; you don't lust after it. A car is a limiting box. Trying to give a vehicle personality, it's in the details. It's an unexpected flick, a negative section on the door handle of 200. It's a very difficult time to be a designer with federal regulations, safety requirements and mass production challenges, but at every turn there's new technology. We love the challenge.

Q: In addition to heading design, you're also CEO of Chrysler's performance-oriented SRT brand, responsible for the Viper. How do you see SRT evolving over the next several years?

A: We're living in a great heyday. Technology has enabled some incredible horsepower and efficiencies. I always look at the ultra-ultra-car world – the Formula 1 race cars, that tech, and you see a lot of dual, triple powertrains mixing hybrid, electric, gas or diesel to make something pretty exciting. At the same time, if you go back to the '70s during the OPEC era, everyone thought the muscle car was dead, and if anything, it's come back stronger several times. There's always going to be thrill seekers who love the visceral sense of driving a car. We'll try to cater to them as long as we can with relevant product.

Q: When I was driving the SRT Viper last year, I received more attention than I ever have in a car. Why don't you market it to women?

A: Our head of marketing is a woman, and she's asked me the exact same question. I'm like, "Have at it." I don't know if it's a sex thing or a mind-set thing. Women love the way the car looks, the way it sounds, and they love the attention. They drive the car, and they feel like Kim Kardashian. The person who owns the most Vipers in the world is a woman in Texas. She owns 64 of them. Everybody likes a Viper. It has nothing to do with being a knuckle-dragger man.

Q: What inspires you as a designer?

A: I just came from the beautiful Amelia Island (Fla.) car show and I still find myself in awe of the designers that came before me. The vehicles they were doing in the '50s, '40s and '30s were just unbelievable. If you look at car designs, they tend to be a reflection of their era. Most Americans now want efficient, larger or medium-size cars, so it's an ebb and flow of the forces of our times pushing on the industry and our instinct to want to be different. It's pop culture mixed with challenges that we face mixed with an inner desire to compete.

Q: Can you be more specific about what influences you?

A: Culture. It's not other cars. I look at the past because I respect the response of the culture, so right now I'm inspired by what's happening in our youth, cultural needs and wants, the paradigms of kids. Do they care about a sleek-looking car? The Kia Soul is intriguing to me because it's not a sleek car, but it's doing very well with the demographic that fascinates me. I'm inspired by the solutions matching the problem.

Q: What are you seeing in youth culture right now that intrigues you?

A: They're living in a communal way. My daughters manage their friendships through their media, and it's becoming pretty prevalent to the point where it's shocking. Distance doesn't mean anything to them, so the car isn't necessarily a social device. I grew up in a time where I couldn't wait to get a car because it was my social means. The car today is not quite as necessary. There's a movement to cities when they're young and able, but once they start family formation, they may go to a suburb situation where cars are again hard to beat.

Q: Like Ford, Chrysler has a staff futurist. How much contact do you have with that person?

A: We're meeting all the time. It fascinates me. People see me as a Viper man and car guy, but I'm really an anthropologist. I love understanding pop culture. I would say the final thing about youth and what inspires me is their confidence. They define themselves by so many things. They're not the insecure 18-year-old I was and my friends were, doing burnouts in front of the high school.


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