Chrysler Design Shifts Gears

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2003 Chrysler Airflite conceptWhen the Chrysler Group takes its turn under the spotlight at the upcoming Geneva Motor Show, it will use the opportunity to unveil its Airflite concept vehicle. Long and tall, with a large grille and an oversized version of Chrysler’s winged logo, the four-door hatchback is more than just a flight of fancy. Based on the new LX chassis, the Airflite provides a clear hint of what’s to come as the number-three automaker shifts design gears.

In the early 1990s, Chrysler used its mid-size LH cars to introduce the world to the concept of cab-forward design. At its essence, that styling theme stressed short hoods and oversized passenger compartments. Models ranging from the subcompact Neon to the big Chrysler Concorde helped the automaker reverse its declining fortunes while establishing a reputation as one of the world’s design leaders.

The Airflite and a variety of production models to follow, including a replacement for the popular 300M sedan, will help launch a styling strategy Chrysler officials call — only partially in jest — cab-rearward.

As it might suggest, the hallmark of this styling theme is a long hood with short front overhangs and shorter deck (or trunk) lids, suggesting power and more than a bit of machismo.

“After generations of bland, front-wheel-drive cars, all too many that look alike, we needed to break away and find a new package,” explained Chrysler’s design director, Trevor Creed, during an exclusive interview with

Replacing a theme

The mid-size LX models, meant to replace the aging LH sedans, will serve as the premier showcase for cab-rearward, a look that also will usher in some significant technical changes. New products based on the platform, such as the Magnum, a sports wagon revealed at January’s Los Angeles Auto Show, will come in either rear- or all-wheel-drive configurations.

They’ll also make use of a variety of components shared with, or at least derived from, Chrysler’s German sibling, Mercedes-Benz. That was the missing ingredient, noted Creed. The U.S. side of DaimlerChrysler had been looking at rear-drive for more than a decade, “but we couldn’t figure out how we’d get there until the merger.”

After a slow start, the trans-Atlantic brands have begun to increase their cooperation. About 39 percent of the content in the new Chrysler Crossfire comes from Mercedes, including key parts of the powertrain and much of its chassis, which was originally crafted for the two-seat Benz SLK.

Not all Chrysler products will adopt the new look, Creed cautioned. Cab-forward is closely identified with products such as the Neon, and will continue as long as Chrysler keeps building front-wheel-drive vehicles.

But cab-rearward could help Chrysler distinguish more than just its passenger car lineup, as demonstrated by the new Pacifica, a blend of minivan, SUV and sports wagon. Creed revealed to TCC that similar vehicles — which Chrysler has dubbed the cross-tourer class — are under serious consideration.

“We could do this kind of car scaled down,” he suggested, along the lines of a “more European-sized people carrier.”

Platform strategy moves on

With the LH sedans, Chrysler ushered in the use of the so-called “platform strategy,” the use of a common chassis on which markedly different body panels could be mounted. Under the skin, the stubby 300M shares most of its key components with the swoopy Dodge Intrepid.

But going forward, Chrysler — like many of its key rivals — is adopting an even more flexible approach called the architecture strategy. It allows for far more variations in length and width, while still sharing a large number of parts.

The architecture approach will help Chrysler work with such DaimlerChrysler partners as the Japanese automaker, Mitsubishi. Together, they will work on a new line of compact and subcompact cars, their goal to cut development and production costs while ensuring individual vehicles look as little alike as possible.

“You have to be true” to the image of each brand, and that means “you have to be clever at coming up with derivatives” of each new platform, explained Creed.

That will be even more the case going forward, the English-born executive stressed, because the days when an automaker could sell 250,000 to 500,000 copies of a vehicle are coming to an end. In the future, he believes a successful car or truck will be measured in increments of as little as 120,000 to 150,000 annual sales, perhaps even less.

The challenge, then, will be to come up with even more new models for far less of an up-front investment.

Interiors “badly done”

In his earlier years, Creed first earned a reputation for his work on interior design, and it remains a hot-button topic with him. Traditionally, he glumly concluded, they have “been badly done in America.” But Chrysler has been earning kudos for the upgraded interiors in both the Crossfire and Pacifica.

It’s been a challenge getting the need for Audi-style interiors accepted both within Chrysler and its supplier community, Creed said, referring to the carmaker generally perceived as the best in the business. He added in frustration that suppliers have traditionally shipped Chrysler lower-quality cabin components than they’d deliver to their European and Asian customers.

Late last summer, 120 senior interior supplier executives, including a number of CEOs, were brought to Chrysler headquarters in Auburn Hills, Mich., for a town hall meeting. The message was simple: Chrysler would no longer accept anything less than the best. The response, Creed recalled, was “absolute silence.” But in the months since, “we’ve seen a dramatic improvement” in the quality of such interior components as seats.

Not-so-modestly, the ever-confident Creed declared that “the role of design is the most important thing in the company,” a position that has been echoed by other senior officials, including CEO Dieter Zetsche, and marketing director Jim Schroer.

By developing stand-out products, both Zetsche and Schroer have said, Chrysler will be able to command a premium price and reduce its dependence on incentives, while meeting the company’s goal of adding another one million units of annual volume.

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