Ralph Gilles is one busy man. In addition to serving as senior vice president of Chrysler Group design, he recently has taken an active role in the management of the company's North American brands - including one all-new division. Gilles recently moved from Dodge to become the president and CEO of the Street and Racing Technology (SRT) brand -- previously only a small engineering group - just in time to launch four new models for the 2012 model year. We briefly sat down with him to see what advantages SRT has as a full-fledged brand, and what products may be lurking around the corner.
Automobile: Congrats on the new assignment. Is this a dream job for you?
Gilles: The big thing for me is, I loved my old job, I had a great time helping to build the brand. Learned a lot in two years about the business, networking, doing commercials, working with marketing guys. But the thing I did miss was the cross-branded nature. When I was in my marketing job, I had to focus on Dodge - and you don't mean to, but you end up competing against the other brands, unlike my design job. This is a more natural dynamic for me.
A: Are there any advantages of having SRT grow from a small engineering group into a full-fledged brand?
G: If you look at the history of performance brands, with the exception of M and AMG, they almost tend to come and go. Ford has a few but they've been disassembled; GM has had a spattering here and there. You end up not really tending to the pipeline of those products. It's very important to collect the right type of people to make these products. It's not the kind of product that comes out of a typical product planning dynamic; it comes more from enthusiasts saying "Wow; here's a great platform. With a little bit of this and a little love this could become something special." It's almost like the engineers and the enthusiasts are planning the product line. We've had a bit of that spirit all along, but it's been almost kind of accidental, or brought together only when necessary.
The second thing that's important about having SRT as a brand is giving the owners a safe haven to enjoy their vehicles; a place to flourish and enjoy the ownership experience. I really have high regard for what Mini's done with their owner base; BMW's done a nice job. Even ourselves with the Viper program; we've done a nice job of kind of coddling our owners. An enthusiast experience is feeling like part of a club; that kind of camaraderie. I want to do everything I can to build that within the SRT ranks.
A: You've mentioned SRT is capable of being applied to any brand, and you're launching new products across three of those marques right now. Is there any chance of an SRT take on Fiat models destined for the U.S.? Or will SRT remain an exclusive to the Chrysler Group?
G: I think we're going to be more tied to the Chrysler brands. If anything, our expertise is available to the Fiat group and brands, especially since we have a lot of understanding of sanctioning bodies here for motorsports. We'll do everything that we can to help Abarth if they want it, but we obviously have to be careful as to not muddy the message.
A: Speaking of motorsports, we've seen some announcements that some racing responsibilities will be assigned to the SRT brand. Will you be stepping on Mopar's toes at all?
G: No. We're already somewhat involved in the NASCAR operation. Mopar is predominantly involved in drag racing, and now the TORC off-road truck series. I think we work best as partners; there are a lot of things we do behind the scenes as partners that people don't realize.
A: My cab driver this morning was raving about the three Neon SRT4s he's owned. Your 2012 portfolio [Dodge Challenger SRT8, Charger SRT8, Chrysler 300C SRT8, Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8] is fairly diverse, but there's still no entry-level B/C-segment performance offering. Is there room in the SRT lineup for such a vehicle?
G: Well, I'm a lot like that guy; I've owned a Neon SRT4, and I love it. I'm a big believer in high-horsepower, small displacement cars, so I'd love to do another. We have some great [small car] platforms finally; some competent chassis are accessible to us. We're going to look into it, basically.
A: Thus far, you've got Chrysler, Dodge, and Jeep covered in the SRT portfolio - is there any chance of adding Ram to that list? Could SRT return to performance-tuned trucks?
G: We'll see. You know, the two-door Ram SRT10 did really well, but the four-door was...um, definitely over-reaching, I think [laughs]. But who knows. All that kind of stuff...we're not going to be as nameplate crazy; I think we kind of overdid it in the past. I want to keep SRT as exclusive as possible, and make sure every car we do is a success. I think we kind of over-reached on some projects, especially the last-generation SRT4 [Caliber].
A: How many is enough? Five? Six?
G: We'll see. We have four already, and we'll add Viper to that list next year. I definitely think we need an entry-level performance vehicle at some point.
A: You have a lot of people waiting for the new Viper to launch with bated breath. What hallmarks; what characteristics absolutely need to be carried into the next-generation car?
G: You know, I can't give up all my secrets. But how to describe the Viper...I think we have to be careful as we go forward so not to lose the essence; that raw essence. It needs to be a vehicle that really rewards a good driver. At the same time, it needs to also be special. The execution is very intense. It's kind of simple, in a way; I like that it doesn't rely on a whole lot of technology to do what it does.
So I think going forward, I want to keep that spirit alive. Our owners have said that. They've told us 'be careful;' not to turn it into a techno-machine. We're very conscious about that. Other than that, I can't really say a whole lot more.
A: Would you consider a ten-cylinder engine a must-have feature?
G: C'mon. I really can't give away my secrets...