No one in Detroit's car business holds quite the collection of jobs that Ralph Gilles does for Chrysler, overseeing vehicle design for all brands, running the SRT vehicle lines, including the SRT Viper, and managing motor sports. For this interview, I asked car enthusiasts online what they'd want to ask Gilles. Here's his answers to their questions and mine on everything from Viper's return to LeMans, the new Corvette Stingray's styling and what owner modifications to Chrysler designs bug him the most:
Where does Viper production stand?
We've allocated our first 800 cars -- those are pretty much spoken for. We just started building cars a couple of weeks ago, it's been a painstaking process. You've heard about the gaps, the carbon fiber has been a bit of a bear for us, but we fired up production last Monday…We're making sure we're happy with the trend and we can go full steam.
How many Vipers can you build and sell this year?
Our demand that we expect is just under 2,000 cars a year. This year we'll be short demand; We can't get there this year, but in our peak year we can hit 2,000. And that's all we need to make the business case.
You've had a few weeks to process the new Corvette. What do you think now?
People like to say they're similar, they're American, they're big displacement cars with rear wheel drive. But they're different. The Viper is about being a bespoke car, it's customizable, unique, very low volume. The Corvette is, dare I say it, a mass-produced sports car. The Viper is a step more exotic yet.
Styling wise, I'm glad they went the direction they did, because it's very different from us. People try to say they're similar, but whatever…
Round tail lights: Yes or no?
I'm surprised at the execution they chose. I'll leave it at that.
You're going back to the 24 Hours of LeMans GTE class this year with the Viper.
Luckily we're ready. We can finalize our plans. LeMans is a different stress level than any other race -- we have to have a different set-up. We're coming back racing in a big way. We couldn't have picked a better time. Porsche's back, Aston Martin's back, of course there's Ferrari, Corvette and BMW. For the fans, it's nirvana.
What's your expectations?
I'd love to see us in the top quartile, but we have to be realistic. We're relatively new, and Corvette's been there for a decade now. For us, there's teething, there's learning...If we can place on the podium three to four times a year, I'm happy.
What other racing series holds the most interest for SRT?
Obviously (Global) RallyCross has gotten our attention; we'll be in it again this year with the Dart. I'm a fan of rally (WRC), but it's a very difficult venue, so RallyCross is a nice way to do it. Drag racing is Mopar. Indy — I am a big fan of Indy car as a spectator, but I have no interest in getting into it. I'm interested in what we can do with the Dart in passenger-car racing, like we did with the Fiat 500 in B-spec racing.
All of our energy right now is on GTE; I reiterate it had nothing to do with NASCAR. It's just how it worked out.
Several people online asked what the prospects were for a diesel performance SRT?
I'm a fan of diesel, we like diesel. But a performance diesel is not the simplest thing to do. I almost want to ask it back: What is the expected performance? Do you expect a diesel to match the performance of the gasoline engine, or would you take a difference experience because you want fuel economy?
Can it be done? Absolutely, (but) the irony is a lesser performing car may cost more than a higher performing car. And I know my customers aren't buying their cars for fuel economy, that's not on their radar.
When will you build the SRT version of the Dodge Dart, as a proper successor to the Neon SRT4?
We're thinking about it. If it comes from SRT, it has a certain expectation. It can't be a me-too car, which is a compliment. We're very nervous to bring out anything that isn't jaw-dropping. To do jaw-dropping stuff takes time, investment, a bigger team. I'm in no rush; the platform is here to stay. We'll see.
What's the chance of SRT building a smaller, rear-wheel-drive model?
I have perverted dreams about such things.
SRT is a fairly new stand-alone brand. Do you still slip up and call it the Dodge Viper?
Viper has been rolling off people's tongues more than I expected. That's why we're going to LeMans; that's why its emblazoned on the side of the car. I don't get offended, because Dodge is still in our tool chest. It's just important to signify these cars are very different from their brothers. It's the same reason I don't want people buying an SRT when they should be buying an S or a luxury 300, which used to happen.
Speaking of the 300, to quote directly from one question: "When does he plan to launch a crusade against all the Chrysler 300 owners who have fitted disgusting oversized chrome aftermarket wheels to his magnum opus? "
It's a free country. I will say every time I see a landau roof on a 300 I want to rip it off on the spot.
What are the prospects for manual transmissions in the Charger or 300 SRT?
We can't do it because of the floor plan of those cars...And the truth is that the demand isn't there. Lots of people talk about wanting a manual, but the take rate on other models has been 80-20 for automatics. We'll always have the Challenger manual for those who want it.
Finally, another direct question: "Do you have Gran Turismo 5 and are you free Tuesday and Sunday nights?"
I do have GT5. I am not free Tuesday or Sunday nights.