By Kevin Krolicki
CHELSEA, Mich., June 21 (Reuters) - Chrysler Group designers are scouring every aspect of the company's Dodge Ram pickup trucks in a bid to boost fuel economy as part of a redesign for 2009, a Chrysler executive said on Thursday.
The Ram trucks remain Chrysler's best-selling vehicles and accounted for about 17 percent of the automaker's overall sales in 2006.
As the No. 4 automaker prepares to launch a revamped pickup truck line to go up against newer, competing offerings from General Motors Corp. (GM.N: Quote, Profile, Research) and Toyota Motor Corp. (7203.T: Quote, Profile, Research), improving fuel efficiency is a key part of the design process, according to Chrysler Group Vice President Ralph Gilles.
"We have to do that. It's just common sense," Gilles said. "Whether that means looking at aerodynamics or other vehicle options. It's something we're looking at."
Gilles, who spearheaded the redesign of Chrysler's 300C sedan before drawing the high-stakes assignment of revamping its truck line-up, said improving the interior of the trucks was another priority for Chrysler.
Gilles, who spoke to Reuters on the sidelines of an event to show off Chrysler's 2008 model line, declined to comment further on the design direction for the upcoming Ram trucks, which Chrysler has kept under wraps before a 2009-model-year launch, expected next year.
Pictures of early Ram prototypes on fan sites have suggested that Chrysler designers had taken steps to improve the aerodynamics of the trucks by reducing surface area in the front of the truck.
U.S. sales for pickup trucks have surprised skeptics by holding relatively steady this year with Chrysler Group and Ford Motor Co. (F.N: Quote, Profile, Research) forced to rely on steep sales incentives.Sales of pickup trucks, which rely heavily on buyers in industries like construction, have declined 3.5 percent through May this year. But full-size pickups still account for 13.2 percent of the overall U.S. market, flat from a year ago.
The pickup-truck segment has been watched closely in large part because it remains a major stronghold for the Detroit-based automakers, even as they have lost market share in other categories to Toyota and other Asian rivals.
Chrysler said on Thursday that it was taking a series of steps to improve the fuel economy of its truck-heavy vehicle line-up in the face of $3-per-gallon gasoline and pending, tougher federal fuel economy regulations.
Chrysler's plans to roll out new V-6 engines and axles expected to boost mileage some 12 percent, introduce more diesel engines and lifting mileage an additional 5 percent by eliminating other sources of friction in the vehicle, including wind drag.