By TIM HIGGINS | FREE PRESS BUSINESS WRITER
The 2009 Dodge Ram Laramie offers a two-tone interior
and a heated steering wheel, a first for Chrysler. Brian Moody
of Edmunds.com praised the interior, saying the gauges have a more precise look.
Chrysler LLC is beginning to see the results of its efforts to improve vehicle interiors, which have been widely criticized in recent years.
The interior of the new 2009 Dodge Ram is the first vehicle to benefit from a stepped-up effort by Chrysler to improve quality in that part of the vehicle through Chrysler's Advanced Interior Design Studio, which was formed 18 months ago."That's the fruits," Trevor Creed, senior vice president of design, told the Free Press in an interview during the North American International Auto Show about the Ram interiors. The new Ram is "saying 'Look how we did the Dodge interior, that's how we should be doing all of our interiors.' "
The effort to improve the interiors coming out of Auburn Hills is not limited to the Ram.
Chrysler this fall is expected to dramatically make over the interiors of the Jeep Compass and Patriot, vehicles that were launched within the past 16 months, people familiar with the plans told the Free Press.
One Chrysler executive said the improvements illustrate a change in the company's culture to quickly fix something that they know needs improvement instead of waiting several years for a scheduled redesign.
Several industry analysts who have seen inside the new Ram at the auto show are impressed but some think that the improvements still do not beat the Ford F-series pickup, which was also redesigned and unveiled at the auto show Sunday.
"I think it puts them on par with GM, but in my mind Ford is still the benchmark for interiors," Erich Merkle, an analyst with IRN Inc., said of the Ram interior. "Ford had a phenomenal interior ... since the last redesign and the one they have out there now is even better."
Still, Merkle had praise for the Ram's interior. "I think it's a dramatic improvement from where it was," he said. "The stuff they had before was so hard and plasticky. I like the fact that it is softer."
But the progress is incomplete, said Michael Robinet, vice president for global forecasting at CSM Worldwide.
"This Ram shows that they've made a step forward but they still have a ways to go," he said.
Brian Moody, Edmunds.com senior road test editor, praised the interior: The gauges, for instance, have a more precise look and chrome accents.
"The color choices also were very pleasing, textures were very nice and the things you would touch did not feel overly plasticky," Moody said. "There is going to be plastic inside a car no matter what -- that's OK. But it didn't feel cheap or overly plastic."
Chrysler has taken criticism over the past year for its interiors. Los Angeles Times critic Dan Neil, for example, ripped the new Sebring convertible, writing it had "deprived plastic interiors" and that vehicle was "cast in plastic worthy of a Chinese water pistol."
ConsumerReports.org had similar complaints about the Sebring Touring Sedan and other new Chryslers. "The Sebring's interior looks cheap and insubstantial," the magazines said. "Almost all of the touchable surfaces are hard. Panel fit has large, uneven gaps and unfinished edges."
Chrysler is aware of such criticisms.
"Quality is always something I have striven to achieve but anything I release from my design department in clay is of the highest quality ... It is sculpted to the highest quality and then it is released into the rest of the system," Creed said. "And it's in the rest of the system ... that things don't happen exactly as we intended. What we've done now is take charge and realize that we all have to work together."
Designers are working with sales and marketing people to identify the so-called DNA of the interior and riding herd over the projects to ensure the design stays as intended, Chrysler executives said.
"There are things that when we release them, they've got to stay on the vehicle until the vehicles come into production and not find out that somebody somewhere took something out ... to save money or whatever," Creed said.
He seemed defensive following criticisms of the Sebring. "I was responsible for the interiors of the Sebring," he said. "Again there are gaps on the production vehicle that were never released from the design department, where suppliers couldn't achieve what they said they could achieve. There wasn't enough oversight at various stages in the process."
"But I still think it is a very dramatic interior and I am very proud of both the car and the interior."