Archive for the ‘Chrysler’ Category

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The Return of the Dodge Dart

May 22, 2012


By Roger Witherspoon

 

It’s back.

The Dodge Dart, the popular, stylish little car that zipped along the roadways and was a favorite of millions of American motorists a generation (or two) ago, is being reintroduced  as the first American designed and made small car of the rejuvenated Fiat-Chrysler partnership. The Dart is a long awaited venture for Chrysler, which merged with Fiat during bankruptcy to combine their respective strengths: Chrysler design, and the Italian company’s experience with small cars.

But why name it Dart, after a car which was ubiquitous following its introduction in 1960 and sold to more than 3.6 million motorists before being was retired in 1976? And while there are souped-up Darts running on modern drag strips, those are old shells with modern innards.

“It was really the best name out there,” explained Ryan Nagode, the chief interior designer of the 2013 Dart. “We tried a lot of names – names we made up, names we borrowed, letter combinations, letters and numbers –you name, it we tried it. But in focus groups of all ages, the Dart was the most popular.

“For older drivers, they remember the Dart fondly from their younger days. And for the young drivers, who weren’t around back then and had no idea of the old Dart, they thought the name was cool. It implied it was slim and swift and aerodynamic and they liked it. It’s the only name that appealed to both groups – older and younger drivers. So we went with it and brought the Dart back.”

Perhaps he’s right.

“I loved my Dart!” exclaimed Marilyn Elie, a retired, Westchester County, elementary school librarian, who owned the car when she started her career some 40 years ago. I would talk to it, sing to it, and it never failed to start for me and take me everywhere.  It worked for me long past the time when everyone said it was too old and should be traded in.

“Then I went away for a while and didn’t talk to it and by the time I came back, it had quietly died. I still miss it.”

The new Dart is not simply a reprise of the original, in the way that the current Ford Mustang—with an updated engine and electronics – is stylistically reminiscent of the best of that breed from the ‘60s. It is built on the platform of the midsized Alpha Romeo, which gives it the closer wheelbase and turning radius of a compact car, while its interior space is slightly larger than that of the popular, mid-sized, Hyundai Sonata and Chevy Malibu.

Under the long, sloping hood, the Dart’s power plant comes in three, performance flavors:

  • Rallye: 2.0-liter , aluminum engine cranking out 160 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque; and Rallye, sportier 1.4-liter turbocharged engine producing 160 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque.
  • Limited: For an additional $1,300 Dart lovers can get a sportier model with a 1.4-liter, four-cylinder, turbocharged, aluminum engine producing the same 160 horsepower, but jumping the all-important torque to 184 pound-feet. There isn’t much difference in regular commuter driving. But on the open road, the turbocharger makes a mark. Driving up the steep grade of the Hudson Highlands rising just past West Point the Standard model struggled to move the speedometer into the high 80s. But the Ltd easily surged up the winding, open road.  Both cars have speedometers topping out at 120 miles per hour. On the Rallye, that’s not wasted space.
  • Sport R/T: Dart’s performance model, with 18-inch wheels instead of the 17-inch wheels on its two automotive siblings, has a 2.4-liter aluminum engine cranking out 184 horsepower and 171 pound-feet of torque.

The Dart, in all models, is a front-wheel drive car that comes with a choice of a six-speed manual or a six-speed automatic transmission with an electronic manual mode. A manual transmission in a car used primarily for urban commuting – complete with regular traffic jams – can make the motoring experience seem as if one is going to a gym to continually exercise the right arm. And that is more punishment than motoring pleasure. The electronic manual mode is appreciated on long hills, however, as it is easy to tap into a lower gear for more power and then tap back into automatic mode. They also project an EPA mileage of 25 miles per gallon in city driving and 36 MPG on the open road using regular gas.

Inside, Chrysler gave considerable thought to the riding experience for both old and young drivers. The seats are wide, Nappa leather, padded, manually adjusted, but heated in the front. In the rear, there is more than enough leg room for passengers  in the range of ta small NBA forward standing six-foot, five-inches in his new Nikes.

For sound, the Dart has AM/FM and Sirius Satellite radio, as well as a 506-watt Alpine surround-sound system with nine speakers and a subwoofer, which is more than enough to awaken the average neighborhood. Chrysler is offering an installed, quirky, Garmin navigation system with Sirius traffic and weather guides as an option. The standard, 8.4-inch information screen – which also is used for the crystal clear backup camera – makes it easy to see the navigation or other systems.

Then, there are interesting touches.

The front passenger seat folds out to reveal a hidden compartment about three inches deep. It’s big enough to hold a iPad, though one wonders who would choose to sit on their expensive electronic tablet? 

“What’s with the marijuana compartment,” Nagode was asked at a press preview.

When he stopped laughing at what was obviously a common nickname, he said “that’s not its purpose. It’s a place to hide small items which you have to leave in the car – like a tablet – but don’t want to leave in public view where it might encourage someone to break a window and grab it.

“It’s not intended to stash drugs.”

Good intentions aside, there are slots on either side of the center console to hold cell phones, placing them about six inches from the power outlet. The glove box is about 18 inches deep, enough to easily hold an iPad.  Inside the deep storage bin under the center console arm rest are the connections for the USB, MP3, and iPod ports, as well as the CD player.  In most cars, the small holes for the auxiliary music connections are hard to find in daylight – and impossible to locate at night when one is driving. On the Dart, however, the connecting ports are backlit, providing at a glance an instant locator. There is also a soft backlight around the dash, cup holders, and door. One can also utilize the Bluetooth for both cell phone communications and to play 1,000 or so of your favorite tunes. The, phone, navigation and entertainment systems can all be voice activated and controlled.

Chrysler is taking a chance by coming out with the Dart as its first entry into the small, crowded, sharp-elbowed, fuel-efficient market with cars priced under $25,000. It’s anyone’s guess as to whether or not the sleek little Dart can slip past the established models and lodge in the front of the pack.


2013 Dodge Dart Rallye

Midsized Sedan

 

MSRP:                                                                        $21,475

EPA Mileage:                        25 MPG City                          36 MPG Highway

Towing Capacity:                                                      1,000 Pounds

 

Performance / Safety:

 

2.0-Liter, 4-cylinder,fuel injected, aluminum engine producing 160 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque; 6-speed automatic transmission; antilock, 4-wheel disc brakes; traction and stability control;  front wheel drive; independent MacPherson strut front suspension; multi-link independent rear suspension; 17-inch cast aluminum wheels; 10 standard airbags; Halogen projector headlamps.

Interior / Comfort:

 

AM/FM/Sirius Satellite Radio; 506-watt Alpine premium surround sound with 9 speakers and subwoofer; Bluetooth; CD player; MP3, iPod, and USB ports; heated front leather or cloth seats; folding rear seats; backup camera; leather, telescoping steering wheel with fingertip audio and cruise controls;

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Fiat 500: The Italian Gem From Detroit

April 11, 2012


By Roger Witherspoon

            The old guy with the shaggy white beard and wide grin started it all.

“Hey,” he shouted from two parking rows away. “A Fix It Again Tony! I had one back in the ‘70s and it was always in the shop. This one looks a lot better! How is it?”

The initial shout breaking the calm on a Sunday afternoon drew attention in the parking lot. But the word “Fiat” hooked everyone in the area.

“Hey,” said a woman who was trailed by a teenage girl with braces wearing a high school jacket. “My daughter is starting high school and is begging for something other than my eight year old heap. Do you mind if she sat in this one and turned on the music?”

And for the next 20 minutes, the copper-colored, sub-compact, four seater 2012 Fiat 500 became as way station for a score of shoppers who wanted to look at, sit in, listen to, and imagine owning the European side of the resurrected Chrysler. Fiat bought Chrysler in a shotgun marriage arranged early in the Obama administration that offered something for each company: Chrysler got to stay alive with a partner knowledgeable about small, fuel efficient cars; and Fiat got a second chance to enter the American auto market.

So far, Chrysler has gotten a lot out of the marriage with an entirely revamped domestic line, including the iconic muscle car, the Dodge Charger and its off-road Jeep group. But Fiat has been slow to hit American roadways, with the company taking time to make sure it had a stylistic winner that could appeal to American tastes. Which is why the Fiat draws a crowd: everyone has heard of it and seen the Jennifer Lopez commercials, but few have had a chance to get close to one.

The 500 is a head turner. It is a sub compact car and at 11.5 feet in length and just under five feet high the Fiat is not much larger than the Smart-for-Two and smaller than the Mini Cooper. The style can best be described as “cute” as it turns heads wherever you go.  Under the hood is a small, four-cylinder engine producing just 101 horsepower and 98 pound-feet of torque. While those numbers seem anemic, the power plant provides more than enough juice to give the little car some pep once it gets under way. It is not, however, as fuel efficient as one might expect from a sub-compact import. The 500 carries an EPA rating of 27 miles per gallon in city driving, and 34 miles per gallon on the highway – and the little engine prefers being pampered with premium gasoline.

            The engine is mated to a six-speed, automatic transmission and it is a performer. On dry or wet winding roads the Fiat operates more like a sport sedan. And on unpaved, pot-holed roads the MacPherson suspension and twin-tube, sport shocks smooth out or minimize even the roughest bumps without disrupting ‘Trane’s “Love Supreme” in the CD player.

The interior of the Fiat 500 provides the biggest positive impression on neighbors and strangers who see the car – and is likely to do the same with the thousands of visitors to the New York International Auto show, opening at theJacobJavitsCenterinManhattanFriday. The seats are double-stitched, Italian leather with equally thick padding on the doors and arm rests. The front seats are manually operated, but they can be heated. And while there is ample leg room for six-footers in the front, the rear seats are more for show than use, unless the passengers are children.

  The dash provokes mixed reactions. The plastic molding is color coordinated with the exterior of the car. And the controls and dials are raised, light colored, plastic buttons. Men who sat in the car invariably exclaimed positively that the buttons were convenient and easy to get used to. Women who sat in the car disdainfully said it was like “driving a blender.”

The 500’s blender does control a wealth of gadgets. There is Bluetooth cell phone and audio connections; and the glove box contains MP3, iPod, and USB connections.  And the Bose sound system can satisfy any type of music lover. But the price of the 500, at about $23,000 is puzzling since it puts this sub-compact in a category with several, large, compact cars under $25,000, such as the Hyundai Elantra, Mazda 3, Honda Civic, and Chevrolet’s Sonic and Cruze (  http://bit.ly/Io8dSv  ).

But the Fiat 500 is unique and difficult to categorize. It is, physically, a small sub-compact car. Yet its quality, styling and precision handling would tend to pit it against a more upscale competition. For variety, at the New York International Auto Show, which opened Friday, the automaker put its Fiat 500 Abarth model in the spotlight. This variation, with a scorpion logo, has a four-cylinder power plant producing 160 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque. That amount of power on such a light car puts it in the performance category of the Mini Cooper – which costs nearly twice as much – and would run the Fiat head to head with the $27,000 Nissan Juke, which has a four-cylinder, turbocharged engine and cannot resist a drag race.

The 500 does not have a navigation system, which is a drawback for a car costing just above $23,000. But there is a factory installed Tom-Tom navigation setup with a three-inch screen installed on top of the dash. The Tom-Tom is more cumbersome and less user friendly than its competitor, Garmin. It seems to have been designed by members of the Flat Earth Society who didn’t get Christopher Columbus’ message and still think the heavens revolve around the earth. As a result, there is no true north orientation, and the Tom-Tom landscape spins merrily around the always upward-moving avatar. The result is a system best used with Dramamine.

In addition, while the Bluetooth function is set through Tom-Tom, the system does not turn off or pause the entertainment system when you have an incoming phone call. Unlike Garmin, it simply plays both through the same set of Bose speakers and subwoofers, though there is a button on the blender to mute the music.

It remains to be seen what kind of splash the reintroduction of the Fiat will have on American car buyers. But considering the excitement in engenders on the street, this second coming of the Italians should be a lot more productive than the first venture.

2012 Fiat 500

 

MSRP:                                                                        $23,250

EPA Estimate:           27 MPG City                          34 MPG Highway

 

Performance / Safety:

 

1.4-liter, aluminum alloy engine producing 101 horsepower and 98 pound-feet of torque; 6-speed automatic transmission;  power rack and pinion steering; MacPherson front suspension with twin-tube shocks; rear twist-beam suspension with twin-tube shocks; 4-wheel, anti-lock brakes; stability and traction control; 15-inch aluminum wheels; halogen projector headlamps; fog lamps; front, side mounted, and side curtain airbags.

Interior /  Comfort:

 

AM/FM/Sirius satellite radio; Bose premium sound system with 6 speakers and a subwoofer; USB, iPod, and MP3 connections; Cd player; Tom-Tom navigation with Bluetooth; power sunroof; tilt and telescope, leather wrapped steering wheel with fingertip audio, phone, and cruise controls;  fold flat, split rear seats; leather seats; heated front seats.

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Chrysler and Fiat: The Odd Couple Steps Out

May 1, 2011


By Roger Witherspoon

 

The Frenchman sat at a small corner table off to the side of the bustling, glittering, Chrysler-Fiat exhibit, speaking softly to associates and watching the coming-out party for his new company.

Last year, in the throes of bankruptcy and a shotgun wedding between the struggling Detroit auto maker and the glittering Italian company best known for its Ferrari and Maserati brands, Chrysler had skipped the big New York International Auto Show in the massive Jacob Javits Convention Center. Instead, Olivier Francois, the newly designated head of the merged company, had launched a crash redesign of all the cars in its Chrysler, Dodge, Ram, and Jeep lineup, while preparing an American version of its compact, European Fiat 500. A redesign process that normally takes about five years was crashed into 18 months

In 2010 Chrysler was a New York Auto No-Show. But the revamped company’s party this year is lavish. The workhorse Jeep Wrangler got a facelift and rolled up and down a makeshift mountain wedged between the front of the convention center and the six lanes of taxis racing up and down 11th Avenue. Inside,  the company’s muscle cars – the 392-horsepower Dodge Challenger and the wide-mouthed, 465-horsepower Charger SRT-8 – flanked the 150-mile-per-hour Jeep Grand Cherokee, whose refined Italian interior décor and 900-watt sound system would let you lose your license in style.

The elegant but ageing Chrysler 300 sedan got an overdue facelift, and the ungainly, bottom-heavy, Chrysler Seabring got a sleek redesign and a new name, the Chrysler 200.

But everything looks shiny, new and inviting at an auto show and Chrysler-Fiat is making a splash just by showing up – and doing it in style. Francois was watching the crowds, scanning for that spark of excitement that would tell him the company was really back from the disastrous decisions of the semi-competent, cost cutting management which drove the company to the brink of collapse.

“In Europe,” said Francois, “we always considered Chrysler the best American brand. But it became a brand that was discontented and it had low brand loyalty.  It’s as if you looked at your kid and said he was a low achiever and then started cutting costs – you don’t pay for the best clothes or the most expensive school and so on. If you have low expectations, then that’s what you get.

“Chrysler always had a very good image in Europe. It was considered very innovative and, actually less American. It was seen as exotic. It had stylistic cars. But you needed to put money and investment in the materials, and quality, and in its people. What matters most to buyers is not whether it’s a Dodge or Jeep or Ram Truck. The perceived quality of the cars was unsatisfactory.”

Dealer surveys and stories in Consumer Reports made it clear to Francois and his incoming team that cost cutting and bad management had led to the impression of cars with cheap materials, mediocre interior designs and excessive noise. And that realization, he said, came as a relief. Chrysler had talented people and a sound product lineup:  It would not be necessary to scrap everything and start over.

Instead, what Chrysler needed was a “heavy tweak” in which they devoted attention to physical problems like materials, uneven suspension, and excess noise. All of the interiors were redesigned using better quality materials. These were corrections, said Francois, “that you can do relatively quickly.”

Francois avoided a culture clash in design by keeping all of Chrysler styling in the hands of Ralph Gilles, an African American, with input from the Italian design shop. The exception, however, is the introduction of the new Fiat 500, where Gilles plays a subordinate design role to the Italian team.

The Fiat 500 is another matter. The brand disappeared from the US more than 20 years ago because its poorly built cars didn’t sell. Now they are back, and convincing the public to get behind the wheel of the sporty little convertible is the chosen chore of Laura Soave, the sharp-eyed car exec who on the convention floor is easily mistaken for one of the svelte models adorning the showroom.

Soave left a post as general manager at Volkswagen, USA to head the reintroduction of Italian car.  “It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity for me,” said Soave. “I’m a first generation American and a kid from Detroit who grew up with cars. My parents are both from Italy, and came here separately in their teens and met in Detroit.

“And I have a personal vision of what this brand can mean to Americans. I know how to blend the Italian culture and American culture very well.”

The cultural blend started at Fiat. Her promotion to CEO of Fiat’s American subsidiary makes the 39-year-old Soave the only female chief executive in the Italian car company, and one of the few top women in the American automotive industry. “What makes Fiat, USA unique,” she said, “is that we are an Italian design company, not an American company with an Italian label. When people think of Italian cars they think of the higher end of Fiat – Ferrari and Maserati and Lancia.  And American consumers are in love with Italian things, like shoes and clothes and food.  Now they can have that Italian flair in transportation.

“We don’t want our car to blend in with the rest of the small cars in the place. The small car market has always been a compromise, an affordability issue where you made tradeoffs in style, content, and safety.  We’re not compromising, and will bring you all that great stuff in a perfect, small package.”

That’s a tall order, even for an ambitious, car-savvy Kid from Detroit. In recent years, several companies have turned their sights on the market for cars costing $20,000 or less. For years, this market was considered an after-thought, where scaled down vehicles were sold to young entry level, or low-income buyers. But now it is treated as a desirable segment of the market, and competition is heating up.

The 33 MPG Mazda 2, which looks remarkably like the equally small Toyota Yaris, goes head to head with the trend-setting Ford Fiesta and Nissan’s little Versa, to name a few small cars with very sharp automotive elbows. The design of the Fiat 500 lies somewhere between the venerable VW Beetle and the Mazda 2, with the same type of rolling soft-top found in the Smart-for-Two convertible.  Breaking into this contentious turf will not be easy.

But Soave, now living and working out of the Detroit suburb of Auburn Hills, is not perturbed. She has the typical auto swagger of Motor City residents and is relishing the fact that Fiat gave her the chance to go home again.

“My parents think this is just great,” she said, beaming. “When they saw the announcement in the paper they cut it out and I made it onto their frig along with the pictures of the grandchildren. That was a pretty good moment.”

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Muscle Cars and Speed Kings

May 1, 2011


By Roger Witherspoon

 

            The muscle cars and speed kings are back in force.

Anyone who worried that an automotive era dominated with talk of fuel efficiency and practical cars meant an end to the most expensive, powerful, fast, flashy set of wheels can rest easy.  Yeah, there is a lot of talk about these cars being the most fuel efficient ever in their class. But that class deals with a lot of horsepower, drinks premium fuel like its Gatorade and measures its performance in fractions of a second.

These are the cars that you do not need to commute to work, and will not get you to a place of worship any faster than the old folks in the minivan in front of you. And they’ll get 20 miles per gallon mostly in your dreams.

But that’s really irrelevant.

If what you are looking for is a car which looks as if it is flying when it’s really parked; which will cause heads to spin and neighbors to drool; which has a powerful growl you can hear down the block without thinking someone has lost a muffler; and, if you floor the pedal, will rock you back in your seat hard enough for you to recall being a dumb teenager, then the New York Auto Show has a set of wide wheels for you. Some may fit your household budget, and some may just fit into your imagination. They come with old fashioned American swagger, as well as foreign flair.

For starters, let’s say you are a family man and want to be somewhat “responsible” and get a car which can take the family to the grocery store and the kids to school when you are not looking for an empty, unpatrolled road to really roll on. Detroit has two family-friendly, fast cars to choose from, and the Germans have added a third.

First, there is the Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT-8, a well-heeled SUV from the renovated Chrysler-Fiat group which can get the kids to their soccer game at 150 miles an hour. You will be traveling tire to 20-inch tire with the Porsche Cayenne, which was also designed to help you pick up the school kids in a hurry. Both are luxury SUVs, with wood paneling, an elaborate music and entertainment system, and a price tag that’s well south of $100,000. Porsche used to have a decided edge in interior comfort, but the redesign and attention to quality and detail in the new Chrysler-Fiat company significantly trims the difference down to a simple matter of personal taste.

If the notion of an SUV is not to your liking, Cadillac has a station wagon for you that rolls along on 19-inch aluminum wheels. The CTS-V Sport Wagon – a slightly larger version of the 180-mile-per-hour CTS-V supercar – uses the same 6.2-liter V-8 engine cranking out 556 horsepower. The station wagon will only get you 150 miles an hour – which is no better than the SUVs – but it looks good doing it.

Okay. Skip being responsible.

You want a car like the one you wish you had when you were younger.  In that case, Detroit has brought back several muscle cars, and made the engines bigger, the cars faster, the gadgets more numerous and the seats larger to accommodate older and bigger drivers.

At the top of the heap is the 220 mile per hour Corvette ZR-1. Its supercharged V-8 engine cranks out 638 horsepower and lets the car bolt from 0 to 60 miles per hour in about 3 seconds. The 2012 ‘Vette has 19-inch wheels in front and 20-inch wheels in its bulging back for added stability. That’s a step up from the zooming Corvette Z-06, which is clocked at just 198 miles per hour. The EPA says the new Corvette can get around 14 miles per gallon of gas though, at that speed, who is checking for anything except the Highway Patrol?

Slightly slower – somewhere between 190 and 200 miles per hour – is GM’s Chevy Camaro ZL-1, with a 6.2-liter, turbo-charged, 550-horsepower, V-8 engine. This Camaro looks a lot like it did in the 60s – only faster. If you drop down below 190 MPH, you can find the iconic, Ford Mustang Shelby GT 500. It is still a head turner a half century after Steve McQueen went airborne chasing the bad guys up and down San Francisco’s unreasonably steep hills in one. Under the Mustang’s recognizable hood is a 550 horsepower, supercharged V-8 engine which costs only $50,000 and, according to the EPA, can get 23 miles per gallon of gasoline while racing down the highway. The mileage may be less if there are frequent stops for police.

Dropping down about 100 horsepower, but keeping up the image and speed is the 2012 Dodge Charger, with a 6.4-liter, Hemi V-8 engine. It looks a lot like the one the Dukes of Hazard drove – but meaner.

Perhaps American muscle cars, whose designs are geared to men, aren’t up to your aesthetic standards. A professional woman on the go may opt for one of the more beautifully designed cars on the road, the Jaguar XKR-S.  While the Jaguar is easily recognized for its soft, smooth-flowing lines, there is nothing soft about it. Under the gently sloping hood is a 550-horsepower engine which can rocket the car from 0 – 60 miles per hour in 4.2 seconds en route to a top speed of about 185.

Which means the woman who shells out more than $100,000 for the XKR-S will look very good as she leaves you way behind.

If you dole out about $175,000, you can get behind the wheel of the 190 mile-per-hour Porsche Panamera, whose 550-horsepower turbo-charged engine lets you race down the highway while getting 23 miles to the gallon of premium gasoline – which is pretty good for this segment. But if you like the looks of the Panamera but want to be more ecologically minded, there is a hybrid version of the Panamera. Its combined V-6 gasoline engine and electric motor deliver just 380 horsepower and the top speed is only 167 miles per hour. But while the hybrid can’t run with the really big dogs on the road, its price is only $95,000 – which means you save enough to add a Corvette to your garage.

And then, for performance and elegance, there is the Bentley Continental GT, the ultimate in refined, expensive, muscle cars. For $250,000, one can slide behind the wheel of one of the world’s fastest production sedans, whose W-12, twin-turbocharged engine cranks out  567 horsepower, jets the car from 0 – 60 miles per hour in 4.4 seconds and 0 – 100 in 10.2 seconds with a top speed of an even 200 miles per hour.

The exterior refinements on the 2012 Continental GT are subtle: the rear was widened an inch and a half and there is a soft ridge which curls around the front wheels and flows through the middle of the door handle towards the humped, 21-inch rear wheels. The big changes are in the interior electronics. The continental now has a touchscreen driving the infotainment system featuring a 30 GB hard drive as well as satellite radio and connections for iPods, flash drives and MP3 players.

Traveling in the Bentley Continental GT means going places in very expensive style. But with the exception of the guy in the little Corvette, no one is going to get to their destination faster.


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Red Ink and Black Crayons: Drawing the Future at GM and Chrysler

August 13, 2010

By Roger Witherspoon

Ed Welburn was the picture of a man who was right where he always wanted to be.

The setting wasn’t spectacular. This was the 2010 New York Auto Show and General Motors, just climbing back from bankruptcy, did not splurge on space or amenities.  But there was Welburn, a quiet Black man whose bald pate was reflecting the overhead spotlights, seated on a plain stool between two of the latest products from his creative palate.

On his left, glistening on a slowly moving turntable, was silver, supercharged, 556-horsepower, Cadillac CTS-V; on his right, the new edition to his growing rolling flock, was a silver CTS-V station wagon.

Which prompted the question: “Ed, why would you make a 150 mile-an-hour station wagon?”

“Because we can,” replied Welburn, grinning. “Besides, does that look like a station wagon to you?”

In fact, the functional station wagon did not look like one at all. The rear was more tapered, the windows were trapezoids under a sloping roof reminiscent of Acura’s crossover, the ZDX, and the front was the aggressive grill of the Cadillac cat.

“Who wouldn’t want one?” asked Welburn.

The question was not really rhetorical. Buses and trains are modes of transportation. Cars are the largest form of utilitarian art most families ever invest in.  It is how a potential buyer feels in or next to a car which closes a sale.  And while news from the various 2010 auto shows was that GM and Chrysler are coming back from the brink and again competing in the marketplace, success will not rest on the existence of small cars, fuel efficient hybrids, the use of quality materials, and the latest electronic gadgets. That technology is widely known and every car company has them.

To sell cars by the millions, GM and Chrysler will need fleets with pizzazz, with flair, with allure, with styles that will bring buyers back into the showrooms saying “wow!” as they reach for their check books.

The future of these two troubled, historic, American automakers now rests largely with the fertile imaginations of two Black artists: the sculptor, Ed Welburn, Vice President for Global Design at GM; and the graphic designer, Ralph Gilles, Vice President for Design at Chrysler LLC.

The two men are cut from different cloths.

Welburn, the 60-year-old Philadelphia native, is a generation removed from Gilles, whose Haitian parents stopped in 1970 in New York to visit relatives and give birth to him on American soil before immigrating to Montreal, Canada where he was raised. Welburn grew up in the era of the 1950s “hogs;” those long cars with huge tail fins whose styling cues came from lumbering, big-winged, Air Force bombers. Not surprisingly, while his wife tools around in the sleek, Saturn Sky roadster – one of Welburn’s favorite designs – Welburn prefers to tool around in his vintage, yellow and black, 1969 Camaro.

Giles, on the other hand, is a product of the 70s and 80s, when stealth jets and sleek, fast, fighters dominated the design cues of transportation artists. While his hand is in all of Chrysler’s cars and trucks, his wheel of choice is a black on black, 640-horsepower, 200 mile per hour, Dodge Viper.

And they are artists with different missions and starting points. General Motors came out of bankruptcy a slimmed-down giant with four successful, ongoing brands – Cadillac, Buick, GMC, and Chevrolet – which Welburn had been developing new cars for. He was most sorry to lose Saturn, a line he had just finished completely redesigning.

“But I understand it fully,” he said. “It is a business, like they said in The Godfather, which is still my favorite all time movie. I’m still proud of those designs.”

At Chrysler, on the other hand, Gilles is starting from scratch with no new cars in the showrooms and in the immediate pipeline. Chrysler ended a stormy relationship with Mercedes by bringing in a new CEO, Robert Nardelli, whose chief qualification was having spent the previous five years running down Home Depot, earning a reputation as one of the nation’s worst chief executives, and walking away with  a $210 million severance. Nardelli cut cars he didn’t like, including the aggressive Dodge Magnum, the signature Dodge Durango and the iconic, retro-styled, PT Cruiser. But he did not green light a new set of winning wheels.

Chrysler, which went bankrupt and become the partner of Italy’s Fiat, is primarily a domestic auto maker. It is the weakest of the three American car companies and, historically, it has concentrated on large sedans and trucks – and area where Gilles made a name for himself. He now wears two hats: president of Dodge cars and vice president of design for all of Chrysler. His mission is to take Fiat’s expertise with developing small, fuel efficient cars, and make those little boxes appealing to American tastes in addition to ensuring that Chrysler’s remaining brands turn out an arresting fleet of high performing, eye catching sedans, SUVs, and trucks.

That requires something of a race against the normal three-year development timeline. Chrysler introduced a new Grand Cherokee in June – characterized chiefly by a remarkably upgraded interior – and hopes to produce modified or new versions of the rest of its line by the end of the year. But it will take more than tinkering with the interior to keep Chrysler in the black.

General Motors is still the world’s largest auto maker and Welburn, as design chief, controls a variety of crayon boxes to meet the world’s disparate motoring tastes. He is the sixth design chief in GM’s history, with his stamp on every vehicle conceived by the more than 1,600 designers at the company’s 11 design studios in eight countries.

“I don’t think what I am doing is the same as what Ralph is doing,” mused Welburn.  “I have a lot of respect for Ralph. But I am dealing with a global design organization dealing with a lot of different cultures. I am in and out of a lot of places I never thought I would be in and out of, and leading teams of people from cultures I never thought I or any one else of African American descent would be leading.

“I’m working with Australians for that market; folks from China or Korea for the Asian market; or Brazil or here in the United States. I don’t dwell on that, but it doesn’t escape me at all that it’s a long way from Philadelphia.”

For a young Ed Welburn, the 1958 Philadelphia International Auto Show was the key to his future. It wasn’t the eight-year-old’s first exposure to the intricacies of cars. His father, Edward, owned and operated an auto body and repair shop in nearby Berwyn, Pa., and young Ed spent hours watching his father working on the cars from the skeletons out.

“The ‘50s were a very car-oriented period,” Welburn said. “And it was a period in which cars had a lot of flair. You could easily identify different brands by their looks. They all have very strong character.

“It was a very exciting auto industry, and I grew up in a family where there were always new cars around.”

But the Auto Show was special. Designs were changing as American society shifted into a mobile culture. The automakers were experimenting with new designs, configurations and bold styles.

“I like a design that has flair,” said Welburn, “that is very expressive and has character that can mean very different things on different types of vehicles. Some designs need to be expressive, and others need to be quiet.

“But they all have to be contemporary. And that is what the big fins on the cars – especially the Cadillacs – were all about. They were built on the new technology of the time.”

His parents encouraged him to read everything he could about car design and by the time he was 11, he said, “it was my dream to be a designer, and I did not think of it as a field in which there were not a lot of African American designers. I just thought of it as a field I was extremely interested in.”

He took the unusual step of writing a letter to General Motors “and I just let them know I was an 11-year-old kid in Berwyn, Pa. , who was interested in auto design and wanted their advice.  What courses should I take in high school and what other preparation would I need to go to a university?”

GM responded with a high school curricula and a list of the competitive colleges they recruited from. Welburn followed their advice and went to Howard University, which allowed him to design his own course of study, specializing in sculpting. He joined GM’s design center in Warren, Mich., in 1972 and began a steady progression upward.  In his early years, the Cutlass Supreme, 1977 Buick Park Avenue, and the Oldsmobile Riviera sprang from his creative pad. Then, in 1985, GM asked him to design a 1,000-horsepower car for the legendary race driver A.J. Foyt to pilot in the Indianapolis 500. His 1987 Aerotech, with Foyt at the wheel, set a world land speed record, averaging 257 miles per hour and topping 300 on the straightaway.

In 2003, GM promoted Welburn to vice president of design, making him the highest ranking black executive in the auto industry. Two years later, the title was expanded to head of global design. In that capacity, if he is not globe-trotting, Welburn is in his office facing the equivalent of a giant video parlor.

“The screen I am looking at,” he explained, “is 18-feet wide. Today, the studio in Brazil is working on a car for their emerging market, and it’s like I’m in the studio with them – but I’m here in Michigan. The guys in our studio in Australia are part of the design review because I asked for their input. Every studio has roughly the same equipment. It is fast moving, full of energy and very creative.”

The participants in these global video design conferences depend on Welburn’s artistic feel for the strengths of his staff. “It really depends on the project,” he said. “I know my people and I know them all around the world. I know that the team in Australia has the emotion I was looking for.

“The team in Brazil is doing a fantastic job. But to give a different perspective, I didn’t want a team that was just like the team in Brazil. The team in the UK, for example, where they are strong, they are really strong with Cadillac – something edgy, something stealth like. They are not the studio I would have gone to for this assignment.”

Welburn sees the world as a global palate, with cultural changes in styles, tastes and textures. Asian artists, trained in intricate brush strokes and shades in jade, provide softer interior design cues for cars than the more brash Australian designers.

“I see the entire world more than anyone else in our organization,” he said. “I was in Korea, China and Australia, and while I enjoyed the time I spent in the studios, I also enjoyed walking the streets, riding the cars, seeing the automotive landscape and seeing how people use and personalize their cars.

In Dubai, the architecture is very edgy on the exterior and very light in color. Inside, it’s a shock when you see all the rich colors; brilliant colors that contrast to the exterior. We need to understand that taste as we sell cars in the Middle East.  In other parts of the world, it may be colorful outside the building but dark and quiet inside.  It is a way of looking at what artistic sense connects with people.”

An example is the critically acclaimed Buick Lacrosse, which was put together by a team from Warren Michigan, taking lead on the exterior, and a team from Shang Hai, China, taking the lead with the interior. The car is a hit in both countries, particularly China.

“The design is much better than what either of those teams would have developed on their own,” said Welburn. “There is an emerging design language coming out of China and it comes from their art, whether it is jade sculpture or cut paper.

“There were a couple of people who switched locations to help the blending process. Through virtual reality, we were looking at each others designs all day, every day, so it was a pretty seamless process.”

The process is far less smooth across town, where Chrysler is working to blend its American staff with those of the new Italian partners. But coming up with eye-catching designs is not a new task for Gilles.

In 2004 Gilles, then head of Daimler Chrysler’s creative Studio #3 was tasked with developing a new breed of cars to distinctly define the company’s major brands. His Jeep Liberty had already proved to be a successful link between Jeep’s comfortable, full sized, Grand Cherokee SUV and its small, off-road, warrior Wrangler.

“Dodge and Chrysler were separating themselves into different types of vehicles, with different customers in mind,” explained Gilles. “Dodge is a mainstream brand with an attitude.

“But Chrysler is more aspirational, more graceful with more high-end products. We’re going to a premium market where the main competitors will be Volvos, Audis and other imports.”

They had scored with the Dodge Magnum, a hot rod with a 340-horsepower Hemi engine masquerading as a family station wagon. They led the track with the 200-mile-an-hour, 500-horsepower Dodge Viper. And they added the Dodge Charger, an updated version of the muscle car of the past.

But it was the Chrysler division where Gilles’ studio needed to shine. Chrysler needed a high end sedan, with a classical look reminiscent of a Bentley, a rear wheel drive like the best from the company’s heyday, and a head turner engineered soundly enough to be parked next to a Jaguar or Mercedes without embarrassment.

The car, said Gilles, “would redefine us as a car company and it would be the kind of car the valets would park out front.”

What they came up with was the Chrysler 300. “That car was a perfect storm of all our ideas,” said Gilles. “That car really resonates.”

And when he sat in the drivers’ seat and stepped on the gas “I was almost in tears driving the car. It felt so right. It’s one thing to make it look good, but the engineers brought it home.”

Critics thought so, too, and Motor Trend Magazine named the Chrysler 300 its 2005 Car of the Year, beating out 24 competitors including Porsche 911, Lotus Elise, and BMW 6. Together, Gilles’ cars led the way in an amazing turnaround for DaimlerChrysler, whose bottom line went from an $806 million loss in 2003 to a $1.3 billion profit in the first nine months of 2004. In all, 2004 was a banner year for the 34-year-old artist from Montreal, Canada’s black community.

And it all began with crayons on a kitchen table.

Gilles was five when his parents took him to visit his Aunt Gisele on Long Island and she watched him drawing.  What differentiated Gilles from kids at that early age was the fact that his drawings were clear and made sense.

“My aunt saw my sketches,” Gilles, recalled, “and she turned to her husband and said ‘Hey Mike! My Nephew can draw! Give him some paper to draw on.”

So he began sketching wherever he went, passing dull moments in school with fanciful drawings of cars and other modes of transport. At 15, Gilles wrote a letter to Chrysler head Lee Iacocca, asking what it would take to become a design artist for the giant car company.

“And wow, they wrote me back,” he said. “I was so impressed. They wrote giving the different names of colleges they hire from, and that was all I needed.  I felt a certain loyalty to Chrysler because they wrote me, and it changed my life.”

Gilles attended the College for Creative Studies  in Detroit, which trained about 40% of Chrysler’s designers, and went to work for the firm after graduating in 1992. Within a decade he had worked his way up to head Studio #3 in Auburn Hills, Michigan, one of the company’s seven design studios. Gilles equates the design studio with a movie lot.

“I direct a studio to draw,” he said. “We get together with the other team members and exchange ideas. It’s like when you make a movie, and you talk about the scenes in the movie before you film the thing.

“It’s like that with cars. No one person designs a car.”

In the short term, Gilles is primarily repackaging the cars in the existing Chrysler fleet. “We are spicing up the Dodge Caravan,” he said so it would not simply be a lower cost version of the Chrysler Town and Country. He is adding 20-inch wheels to the sprightly Dodge Nitro and made 19-inch wheels standard on the muscular Dodge Charger.

But, he acknowledged, this year “We are just playing with cosmetic changes.”

That will change. There will be a new edition of the 2010 Viper “and we will have a replacement for the Durango in the fourth quarter. It is all new and redesigned. It has not a stitch in common with the previous Durango and is a thoroughly modern crossover.”

And his team is working with the Italian design shops to redesign the Fiat 500, a popular small, European car, to meet American tastes later this year.

Chrysler, which skipped the 2010 auto shows, is playing catch-up, which puts extra pressure on Gilles and his artisan crew. “Everyone is confused by our new business model,” he said. “Had it been a normal year, the practice would have been to have had 14 to 16 models at the Detroit Auto Show.

“The products are still coming. The level of work is being done – but we are not pre-showing them like we used to. There will be a much shorter lead time. But we are certain we can keep the excitement.”

Gilles has a track record of producing exciting, crowd-pleasing cars. Chrysler’s future rests on his ability to do it again.

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