CDR4 Highlights: Ralph Gilles, FCA

04 September 2017 | by CDN Team

There’s nothing more infectious than hanging out at club events around passionate car owners who park their 2016 car next to a 1960s version. Very few companies have such a wide range of such passionate brands and as designers, engineers and product planners, we are their shepherds. We are lucky to have these very old brands that are still relevant – Alfa Romeo, Maserati, Jeep; even Ram is almost 40 years old.

They all have their own head of design and we collaborate. My job is to give them what they are looking for to make sure we leave every brand better than we found it. Make products that build the brands’ ethos, character, relevance, make it popular. If you’re at a pub anywhere in the world talking to someone who isn’t even into cars and you say: ‘What’s Alfa? What’s Jeep?’ they can recite what you’d expect them to say. That’s awesome.

2016 was a ‘coming out’ year for going global. The Maserati Levante was launched last year and it’s great to see it now relevant to the American and Asian markets. With Alfa Romeo it’s the same, it will be available on just about every continent. Our Jeep brand is becoming a global brand right before my eyes. Thankfully we have outposts in those regions now to give us excellent feedback.

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It’s tough being a designer creating a vehicle that’s true to its American roots yet relevant elsewhere. The Compass was designed specifically to be a global vehicle, as was the Renegade. To me, those vehicles in particular show how flexible the Jeep brand can be. You kind of have to watch the boundaries, though. There are certain things a Jeep has to have: elements that transcend time. The trapezoidal wheel arches, the noble grille – even the front of the Renegade has a link back to the Wrangler.

There are design elements we carefully mine from our history while we also try to add a contemporary feeling, because those vehicles are incremental, completely new offerings, especially the Renegade.

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In Brazil, the affordability factor is a little bit different to Europe so we play with that in terms of finish, but in some cases we will spend what it takes to make the vehicle consistently a Jeep in any country. The brand image is similar. However, the configurations can be different, the amount of luxury and interior features they expect.

For example, Asians expect leather as standard, no cloth whatsoever. In Brazil they want the connectivity normally associated with top-line vehicles in the base car. They don’t care about how soft the door is, they just want technology. Little things like that don’t align exactly to the North American market. But within half a cycle you can tune the market, sometimes even from the get-go.

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Looking forward, it’s really interesting to see each company playing their hand as to how they imagine the future. They are not so different. We are seeing a time when the tech and auto industries are interlacing themselves, in a good way. These electronics companies that have separate consumer goods teams are now saying, ‘hey, let’s borrow that intelligence from the electronics team and marry it with the automotive team. It could be a very fruitful relationship.’ We are seeing that throughout our supply base.

Our engineers have been able to collaborate in outfitting the Chrysler Pacifica for Google hardware, too. Some of the sensors are unique to Google, some of the sensors are in our supply base, and that’s what we focused on with the 2017 Portal [monospace electric family vehicle] concept.

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As minivan makers, we are always pondering, ‘when are millennials going to start really having kids?’ You’re starting to see it now. Even millennial actors are starting to pop babies out left and right, the Kardashians are having kids. So there’s a trend which is going to change the market.

How would I argue against those that say FCA has been late to the electric vehicle market? Despite all the concepts that have been shown, there are only 55 electrical name-plates available today. This segment has barely budged in 10 years. It’s a tiny, tiny portion of the actual car market. It’s very important to talk about it and we are concerned about it, but the day-to-day business is still 99 percent of what matters. We are just quieter about it than everybody else. We keep the discussion internal. Not comparing ourselves to Apple, but they never talk about anything until they pop a product out, so I don’t know why it should be any different for us.

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We are hiring more disciplines of design now, not just the ‘fancy car styling’ kind of guy. We’re looking at product, UX and detail designers, even animators for our infotainment screens. The auto industry is becoming much quicker-moving. There used to be a perception that it was somewhat slow at responding, but I think that is changing. It’s more updatable too. The car is becoming a cauldron of technology and there’s a lot of tech and design opportunity.

Car Design Review 4 contains the best concept and production cars of the year, as chosen by the world's leading designers, trends, student work, and much more. Available now.

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