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Burning tires with Chrysler's design chief
Ralph Gilles tapped the drivetrain's Sport button and held down an adjacent key to deactivate the electronic stability system. We were in a 470-horsepower Dodge Challenger SRT8 — Gilles at the wheel, me riding shotgun — about to hug the best four miles of asphalt anywhere in the Midwest: Wisconsin's Road America racetrack.
"Now we're in full 'oh s—t' mode," Gilles smiled.
I figured Chrysler's chief designer could careen around a racetrack in his own cars any way he liked, and it seemed like a good way to pass time after the 20-year company veteran spoke to journalists at the Midwest Automotive Media Association's Spring Rally last week. Careen we did, nearing 140 mph down the half-mile Kettle Bottoms, between the 11th and 12th of Road America's 14 turns. Gilles is a better track driver than me, but that's not saying much: My apexes are messy, my drifts fleeting. Any weekend enthusiast would show me taillights.
Gilles has also navigated Chrysler's own twists and turns. The 42-year-old designer jokes of still having nightmares of former CEO Bob Nardelli, whose tenure lasted all of 21 months, and he calls his current boss, Sergio Marchionne, a "globally minded" car guy. Gilles has led the automaker's design for three years, overseeing cars from the Dodge Dart to the SRT Viper. A year ago, Marchionne appointed Gilles the CEO of Chrysler's SRT performance brand.
SRT's zenith was in 2006, when sales peaked on a slew of SRT variants, from the Ram pickup to the Neon compact. Today the automaker offers SRT versions of just four nameplates — the Chrysler 300, Dodge Challenger, Dodge Charger and Jeep Grand Cherokee — plus the standalone SRT Viper.
SRT is more targeted now, Gilles said. Back then, the division was "driven by a little bit of [sales] volume chasing," so much that it was losing money on a few models. "Now [the SRT cars] have to make a business case," he said, and that will include smaller engines than the brand's current V-8 and V-10 lineup.
SRT will "absolutely" return to V-6 or four-cylinder engines, Gilles said. "We're looking at all the new corporate-wide platforms right now."
That could include the Dart, which would all but assuredly improve on the ill-executed Caliber SRT4. "It's all I dream about," Gilles told journalists over lunch. "We're definitely interested in seeing that business case."
Besides the Viper, Gilles' favorite design of recent history is, in fact, not the Dart. Nor is it the Challenger, the Charger or anything else in Chrysler showrooms. It's still under wraps.
"It's one you haven't seen yet," Gilles said. "It's coming out next year.