DETROIT -- On April 1, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles named Ralph Gilles global head of design, placing him in charge of the look and feel of the company's brands worldwide. Gilles is a native of New York City and a graduate of the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, and he has long been one of Detroit's top automotive celebrities. Now he finds himself working for a global audience, designing cars, SUVs, pickups and crossovers that look as good on New York's Broadway as they do on the streets of Sao Paulo or Shanghai.
Gilles, 45, spoke with Staff Reporter Larry P. Vellequette in Auburn Hills, Michigan, on Dec. 16.
Q: Do you think Americans accept hatchbacks now?
A: The generation of buyers now are very function-oriented, and I think we, as an industry, have done a better job of offering a larger variety of CUVs and also more-efficient CUVs and fun-to-drive CUVs. They drive like cars; they're very flexible they get good fuel economy -- there are many factors, and the utility is undeniable. I always joke that CUVs are really hatchbacks in disguise. They're higher off the ground, but there is a benefit to that command of the road. People like to sit higher. Not only the young people -- but also the aging population likes not having to drop into a car. There's a lot going for a CUV when it comes to the consumer.
Is the station wagon, which is popular in Europe, ever going to come back to popularity in the U.S.?
I don't think so. I think it's probably popular in Europe because of the gas prices there and the fact that there has historically been a lot of offerings. But I think in the U.S., the modern SUV is the station wagon. Because we don't have a space limitation, and our fuel's a little cheaper here, historically Americans have bought either minivans or large SUVs or even midsize SUVs for that purpose. There's too much competition. We tried that with the [Dodge] Magnum, and it's funny; in this day there's a cult following for that vehicle, and, ironically, the millennials love it and they really respect it, but it's hard to argue that a full-sized SUV is not a more holistic solution for this market.
In terms of design, are the basic shapes of vehicles set for the next 10, 20 or 30 years?
We joke about it, but take frontal area: When it comes down to fuel efficiency, there's only so much that a powertrain can do. There's a point where frontal area is key, so you're always making that calculation between the overall area of the car that has to punch a hole through the wind; it has to be as efficient as possible.
And people are not going to change sizes anytime soon. If anything, across the globe, people are getting taller and more like Americans in a way. So that's becoming paramount, to make sure that, say, if you have a five-passenger car, once you put the people in, there's a cell that you have to respect. In some ways, a car can design itself. Now powertrains have gotten more compact. There are a lot more four cylinders now than ever before, so the engine bay is smaller.
At the end of the day, once you have the people accounted for, there's a reason that airplanes and even subaquatic animals all look the same. Most fish have a certain profile, and most airplanes have a certain profile because they push people through the air just like a car does.
Let's talk about color. The one thing FCA has done, especially on interiors, is broaden the color palette. What do you think is going to happen to interior colors and exterior colors over time?
No. 1 for us is we've hired different people to do interiors. You always had the car guys trying to do interiors, and now we've hired dedicated people from the fashion industry, from the textile industry, that now work in our color and trim department. They come with a different idea, a different palette, so we have more options than ever.
And the plants, thanks to them, they've been able to handle more and more complexity. We probably tolerate more complexity than any other company. We really push our plants to the limits in terms of giving people options. And my dream is that people would take the time and order their cars. It's amazing what you can get.
Why is black so prevalent in auto interiors?
Why are most suits black, or why are most women's dresses black? There's something neutral about black, and if you're a dealer and you have to stock these vehicles, you don't want to waste too much time offending anyone, so you're going to go for the safe call, and black happens to be the most popular color. In the [Southern and Western] states, they do like tans and lighter colors, but not too light, because then you have soiling issues with blue jean dye transfer and things like that.
You get the tans and the blacks as the staples, but there is a lot we can do with that.
In the world of paints now, we can do about anything. The annodized look that you see in the Trailhawk versions of our Jeeps? People really love that. Nice, little, clever accents can really brighten up a black interior. And in our newer products, you're going to see some really beautiful contrasting interiors.
What is the key to getting people to order vehicles as opposed to buying them off the lot?
It's going to be tough. There are always a handful that do, especially with our specialty vehicles. If you look at the Dodge brand, a lot of people order their cars -- a disproportionate amount. I think as we see second-generation dealers, sons and daughters taking over stores, they tend to take more risks, we think. We see it already. We're a little bit at the mercy of our dealerships. If we give them the offering, they do take a chance, and if it sells, they'll order more.
How does designing globally differ from designing for North America?
Designing globally is about understanding the markets and not thinking that you can always export something that works in North America. I would say our brands are strong; the Jeep brand seems to work about everywhere in the world. We have a lot of inputs. We listen not just to designers -- it's almost dangerous to just listen to designers -- but we listen to the markets. Each region has market heads, and we have people on the ground that listen to the dealers and what they want. We've created a culture where we tolerate a lot of inputs before we design anything. That really helps me.
Is designing a vehicle globally a series of compromises?
No, it's awareness. The good news is that the laws are starting to average out. And we're finding that tastes are getting a little more similar, too. The Europeans are using more chrome than they ever have, suspiciously, so those things are kind of working. The Americans are getting attracted to compact SUVs and crossovers, and that's starting to happen in Europe now. The Cherokee, for example, works in every part of the world it seems. There are some of those segments that overlap beautifully. Now there are things like pickup trucks that you'll never see [in Europe].
Is designing for China different?
It's very different. We had a presence in China 10 years ago, and we took a hiatus, and now we're back. The consumer has changed dramatically. We used to say, "Oh, they always get driven around." Now, they do the driving, but they bring their entire family with them. Ironically, the kids are in the middle, and the parents are all the way in the back if you have a three-row vehicle. So the vehicles are used differently.
They don't care about horsepower. It's not about the image of performance like part of the American market is. It's about status; it's about stature; it's about smart space -- they really are big on efficiency of space. And they accept the fact that they're going to be in traffic a lot, so they want their interiors to keep them entertained while they're in traffic. Coming in to market a little late is good because we can observe everything that's been done.