A few years ago, auto supplier Visteon Corp. gave its customer Chrysler a color-coded list of all the places where it thought the carmaker was doing well in interiors, and also a list of where it was going wrong.
It was simple to understand, said Ralph Gilles, senior vice president of product design for Chrysler Group LLC — green for good items, red for bad and yellow for areas of caution.
“The cup holders worked, and that was about it,” he said. “They were worried that we were asleep at the wheel.”
The report, from Van Buren Township, Mich.-based Visteon, wasn't really that far off, Gilles admitted during a presentation at Ward's Auto Interiors Conference in Dearborn. Back then, struggling Auburn Hills, Mich.-based Chrysler had put an emphasis on ergonomics above design, materials and fit.
“It was a festival of polypropylene,” Gilles said, pointing to Chrysler's past. “You can make plastic look good, but we made plastic look even harder than plastic.”
Today, the automaker has emerged from bankruptcy and has new life backed by Italian automaker Fiat SpA and government support. The company not only has revamped its exterior vehicle styling, but also has a new focus on interiors that is taking Chrysler into new territory. Two of its cars — the Dodge Charger Rallye Plus and the Jeep Grand Cherokee Overland Summit — landed on the top 10 interiors list for Ward's AutoWorld magazine.
Some of the improvement comes from an increased emphasis on materials, wrapping plastic substrates in leather and using real wood or carbon fiber. But it is not just a matter of using higher-end skins and covers, Gilles said. Half of the interior in the award-winning Charger and Jeep models are still plastic. Key vehicles like the Town & Country and Caravan minivans have hard plastic interiors.
The difference, he said, is that Chrysler's team is filled with designers and engineers who are dedicated to interiors, not merely temporarily reassigned exterior stylists.
“We found model makers who liked to model little things like a 2-millimeter radius,” he said.
The carmaker hired a graining expert to teach its team how to texture injection mold tools, so even standard parts looked and felt better, he said. Chrysler uses a 12-step graining process with laser etching, rather than the one-step graining it used previously.
Engineers worked alongside designers to create concepts for parts that would fit better from the start. Gilles noted early design sketches for air vents on the Charger that included a detail on the shape of the snap-fit attachment so it would look and perform better from the start.
The Dodge Journey sport utility vehicle had a cast-skin and soft-touch foam instrument panel previously, Gilles said, but still looked harsh and hard. The revamped 2011 interior softens and enhances the look while still using the same standard materials.
“We're getting a lot done in a very short period of time,” Gilles said.
And interiors, he said, will continue to be part of the company's