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.
Gilles (pronounced "Jheel") chatted about the future of Chrysler design.
Q: In your opinion, what's the sexiest car ever made?
A: The convertible E-Type Jag.
What, in your opinion, is the sexiest Chrysler ever made?
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.
You use some of your Twitter bio to say, "Love how cool cars bring great people together." Why?
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.
You oversaw the redesign of the Chrysler 200 sedan. What were your design goals?
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.
Is the exterior or interior design of a car more important?
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.
Now that Chrysler is owned by Fiat, there's a lot of chatter about certain Fiats coming to the U.S.
I can't talk about that.
But you can talk about the Jeep Renegade introduced last month.
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.
In addition to design, you're also CEO of Chrysler's performance SRT brand, responsible for the Viper. How do you see SRT evolving?
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.
Why don't you market the Viper to women?
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.
Chrysler has a staff futurist. How much contact do you have?
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.