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Mon, Aug 15, 2005 - Page 12 News List

Styling makes Chrysler 300 a hit

HOT PROPERTY Combining classic lines with power under the hood and an athletic, aggressive stance, the `Baby Bentley' conquered the US -- and the world is next

AFP , AUBURN HILLS, MICHIGAN

This undated photo released by DaimlerChrysler shows Canadian Ralph Gilles, the chief designer behind the Chrysler 300. The hot new designer is on a mission to bring the romance back to the auto industry and has become the public face of Chrysler's sexy new sedan, the 300. He's appeared in ads, at auto and award shows and in countless interviews.

PHOTO: AFP

After taking the US by storm, DaimlerChrysler's hot new sedan is now being aimed squarely at Asian and European markets.

Hailed as a "Baby Bentley," the aggressive, athletic stance of the powerful Chrysler 300 made it a must-have in the trendsetting hip-hop crowd -- it even showed up in a Snoop Dogg video -- while its classic lines made it a hit with middle-aged men.

The buzz surrounding the brash styling in what is generally a staid segment has even spread to the 300's chief designer, Ralph Gilles.

With his movie-star good looks, Gilles, 35, became the public face of the sexy sedan. He's appeared in ads, at auto and award shows and in countless interviews. Dubbed the "Bling King" by Time magazine, Gilles was featured in a GQ photo spread and graced the cover of Black Enterprise.

The fuss doesn't suit Gilles' understated Canadian sensibilities. He seems almost embarrassed by it, though quick to admit it's been good for the company.

But his marbled green eyes shine when he talks about the ability of good design to get people excited about ordinary objects.

Exciting design

"It can be a simple thing like home furnishing and fixtures," he explained as he leaned across a paper-strewn desk in his Auburn Hills, Michigan office.

"All it does is deliver water to your cup. The reason someone says `it's a nice faucet, man' is because someone took the time to sweat it," he said.

Sweating it is exactly what Gilles and his design team did with the 300. Most cars take three years to make it from the sketch pad to the assembly line. The basic style can be traced to the 1998 Chronos concept car but the 300 didn't make it to the market until last year.

The wait was worth it.

Named Motor Trend's Car of the Year, the award-winning 300 also helped to revitalize a brand that had become tired and confused after its 1998 merger with Daimler-Benz AG.

"It's not only generating sales for itself, but it's having a flagship effect of getting people into dealerships," said auto analyst Jeff Brodoski of J.D. Powers and Associates. "It's done wonders for the car side in terms of sales and it's done wonders for the group as a whole."

In its first year on the market, around 114,000 of the loaded cars were sold in the US, making the 300 the hottest selling car in several classes. That trend is expected to continue this year, with J.D. Power forecasting sales of 140,000 vehicles in the US.

Sales in Europe have already reached 5,430 vehicles and are expected to increase when the new diesel model is released later this year. Chrysler also has high hopes for the reception the 300 will receive when a right-hand drive model is launched at the Tokyo motor show in October.

The strength of the 300 is that it can be so many things to so many different kinds of people. Something that's increasingly important in the highly fragmented auto market.

"The trick [is] how do you do a unique, huge volume product," Gilles said. "You want someone to feel `they built that car just for me,' because it anticipates their needs so well."

Innovation

Chrysler has a history of innovative design. Gilles was drawn to the company by the Dodge Viper roadster and stayed because the atmosphere encouraged risk-taking.

The goal is to bring tension to design. To create trends rather than follow them. To craft with confidence and rely on timeless styling.

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