Monday, July 9, 2007

New Ram key for Chrysler

Top designer will update Dodge pickup

Ralph Gilles, one of Chrysler's top designers, went down to Texas to find inspiration for the new Dodge Ram pickup, which will go on sale next year.

The Ram, a supremely important part of the Chrysler lineup, is in need of an update and faces intense competition, especially from General Motors' new Chevrolet Silverado, Toyota's new full-size Tundra and Ford, which is gearing up to launch a new F-150 next year.

In an interview with the Free Press this week, Gilles, 37, spoke carefully about the upcoming redesign of the Ram, not wanting to spill too many secrets about a project that will have an impact on the automaker for years to come.

He bristled at the notion that Chrysler is frantically rushing to redesign the Ram to compete, noting the automaker has been working on this project for a while, going about it in a "logical" manner.

Gilles, a Chrysler design vice president, said the buzz internally at Chrysler about the new Ram is similar to the feel prior to the launch of the Chrysler 300 -- one of the automaker's last smash hits, in no small part due to his design.

"The vibe is really good. I remember when I was on the 300 team years ago -- there was a vibe about the team," he said. "There is that sense of purpose."

For good reason: The Ram hasn't been redesigned since 2001, which kept much of the truck's brawnier appeal out of the previous design.

"It will be very important for them to at least maintain their place in the pickup segment, which is something huge to say these days. ... To maintain market share is a huge feat," said Tina Jantzi, manager of North American forecasting for J.D. Power and Associates.

So far, so good: Ram's sales are up a bit -- 1.1% -- for the first half of this year, and its share of the segment is holding steady at 17%.

Much of that can be attributed to Chrysler's use of customer incentives.

Chrysler's spending on cash rebates has jumped from an average of $3,787 in 2004 to $4,675 this year on Dodge Rams, according to the Power Information Network. The industry norm for pickups is $2,922 so far this year.

"The fact that it hasn't been redesigned yet is definitely hurting them a lot," said Christopher Li of the Power Information Network.

Even Gilles admits he had not been into pickups before his recent assignment. "I've never had one before. I've only had sports cars and minivans," said Gilles, who in recent years has been handed some of the most important design jobs at Chrysler, including the new minivans, which were unveiled at the Detroit auto show in January and go on sale this fall. Some will be trickling into showrooms by the end of next month.

But after a year of driving a light-duty Ram 1500 Quad Cab around town with routine weekend trips to the hardware store for his home remodeling projects, Gilles states his impression simply: "I love it."

He admits it is a cliché to make a pilgrimage to Texas, but Gilles even took a trip to Ft. Worth to visit Billy Bob's Texas -- the self-proclaimed world's largest honky-tonk -- to see how pickups fit into the culture.

"I spent more time outside than in the bar," which features blaring country music and an indoor rodeo, Gilles said. "I've never seen so many trucks in my life."

In particular, Gilles noticed that many of pickups were modified with items such as gun racks and extra lights. "Some guys would weld stuff to their trucks because they had a particular need," he said.

In his Ram, which he has been driving on after-market 20-inch wheels, Gilles has been hauling sod, bathroom tile and other household goods.

"I've learned that when I like to haul gravel, I still like to listen to my iPod and my tunes. When I am in the cabin, I am sitting in this air-conditioned cocoon; it's like any other passenger car. I feel like I am driving the 300. I look in the back, and I've got 1,500 pounds worth of stuff," Gilles said of his experience with the Ram. "There is this duality that the truck has to achieve. It has to be comfortable and luxurious yet very capable. You can't do anything that hurts its function, but you can still do things that bring it up.

"That's the challenge -- to be able to find the sweet spot and exceed those expectations."

Industry analyst Erich Merkle, director of forecasting for IRN Inc., said Gilles is a natural pick to usher in a new Ram. "The guy has got the Midas touch," he said. "He really understands ... that the new vehicle will have to be identifiable as the Dodge Ram but it also has to accentuate that it is all new."

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