Ralph Gilles is arguably the consummate “car guy.” That appellation is predicated on skills, talent and passion for all things automotive, and in his long career at Chrysler—he started there in 1992—he has demonstrated all of those characteristics with panache. Were he to have done no more than being the designer credited with styling the 2005 Chrysler 300, he would have made his bones as being among the best, but that’s only a small part of what he’s accomplished.
Here is a man who started out as a designer in the Design Office, who now not only runs design (officially: Senior Vice President, Product Design, Chrysler LLC), but who is also the president and CEO of SRT Brand and Motorsports.
SRT is the place where Chryslers, Dodges and Jeeps are made into performance products, predicated on five aspects: awe-inspiring powertrains; outstanding ride, handling and capability; benchmark braking; aggressive and functional exteriors and race-inspired and high-performance interiors.
And SRT is the place from whence the 640-hp Viper comes.
On this evening’s edition of “Autoline After Hours” John McElroy and I are joined in the studio by Frank Marcus of Motor Trend. And we talk about things ranging from the 2015 Honda Fit’s clever packaging to the Rallye Monte-Carlo ZENN (Zero Emission, No Noise).
But what is most pertinent, engaging and enjoyable is Ralph Gilles, discussing things ranging from the 2015 Chrysler 200—which he’s brought to the set—to how design is done at Chrysler. And he answers—or doesn’t, in the case of future real and rumored products—questions from the SRT partisans that are sent and called in.
Generally “After Hours” runs for an hour. That wasn’t enough time for this one, so it is pushed for an additional 15 minutes. It’s all worth it.
Next month, Chrysler is putting its Conner Avenue Assembly Plant on hiatus for a couple of months. Conner is where the SRT Viper is built. The Viper has a 640-hp V10 engine. Not that it matters, but the EPA fuel economy is 12 city, 19 highway. And because it does matter, it has a top speed of 206 mph.
Oh, and then there’s the starting price of $99,885. That’s sort of important. And may explain why the plant is being shut down for a while.
This came to mind in relation to an announcement made last week by Bentley Motors, which is based in Crewe, UK. Bentley, which is part of Volkswagen Group, is going to be the source for all VW W12 engines. Yes, “W” and “12.” The engine as used in the Bentley Continental GT speed produces 616 hp.
About the designation of Bentley as the source of W12s, Dr. Wolfgang Schreiber, Chairman and Chief Executive of Bentley Motors, said: “This is an important step, not just for Bentley but also for the UK manufacturing sector. This W12 centre of excellence is recognition of the long standing engine manufacturing expertise we have that has resulted in performance improvements across the model ranges over recent years. The production of this advanced engine and its future generations will bring new technologies and skills to Crewe.”
The company plans to produce as many as 9,000 of the engines per year, which are not only used in Bentley models, but in applications like the Audi A8 and the VW Phaeton.
Presumably, there is the financial wherewithal for people to lease or buy lux cars with big engines, which is not, evidently, the case when it comes to two-seaters that go like bats out of. . . .
The Mercedes Unimog—the range of massive vehicles that are almost Transformer-like in their various guises and implementations, doing everything from clearing snow to transporting giant Christmas trees—has always struck us as being somewhat diverting, if for no other reason because when we think Mercedes, the last thing on our minds is gargantuan go-anywhere-do-anything vehicle. And we’re not talking here about some 4WD vehicle that can handle tough terrain, either. We mean anywhere, anything.
Yet, that’s what it is and that’s what it can do.
One use that is particularly unusual for the already unusual vehicle is as a recreational vehicle. Jennifer and Peter Glas are traveling and living in a Unimog U 1300 L (model series 435), and they’ve been doing so since last April. Their travels have taken them to Turkey, across the Dasht-e-Kavier desert in Iran, to Oman, and now India
The seven-ton truck is carrying 540 liters of diesel fuel and 180 liters of water. They’ve fitted it with a solar power supply.
Plans call for them to move on to Nepal, Tibet, China, and Mongolia.
One advantage of traveling through the rugged terrain: they don’t have to worry about fitting the Unimog into one of those slots in an RV camp.
When Dr. Norbert Reithofer, chairman of the Board of Management of BMW AG, made his presentation regarding the company’s financials, he was able to announce good news right across the board.
Reithofer observed, “Our business model is clear: Individual mobility in the premium segment. Cars are incredible products, because they benefit people in their daily lives and they reach out and speak to their emotions. More than 76 million cars were sold worldwide in 2013. The global automotive market will continue to grow in 2014.
“And the BMW Group was the Number 1 choice for customers in the premium segment around the world.
“This is proof that we deliver on our brand promise – whether it be BMW, MINI and Rolls-Royce. This is why the BMW Group has held the lead in the premium segment for about a decade now.”
Statistically, in 2013 it went like this:
· BMW Group: +6.4%
· BMW brand: +7.5%
· MINI: +1.2%
· Rolls-Royce: +1.5%
· BMW Motorrad: +8.3%
And there is more to come from the company within 2014.
Vehicles Reithofer cited (in addition to the i8 he has next to him on stage):
2 Series Coupe:
4 Series Convertible:
4 Series Grand Coupe:
MINI Cooper S:
MINI Clubman Concept:
Rolls-Royce Ghost Series II:
One interesting aspect of Reithofer’s vision for the future. Looking forward to 2020, there is a focus not just on building cars, crossovers and motorcycles, but providing vehicle-sharing and digital connectivity, too. In his words the objective is: “To be the leading provider of premium products and premium services for individual mobility.”
Manufacturing cars is one thing. But offering mobility-related services seems to be another that while not as important, something certainly not to be overlooked.
While you might associate “Mercedes-Benz” with large, sumptuous cars like the elegant S Class, it seems that its compact models—the CLA, the GLA, and the A- and B-class (the last two not available in the U.S. Yet. Never say never.)—are in huge demand.
The Mercedes plant in Rastatt, Germany, has been running three shifts since October 2012.
Last week, Mercedes announced that in May it will add a third shift in its Kecskemét plant in Hungary.
The vehicles have a common architecture, which facilitates the build of a mix of models in the plant to meet demand. And Mercedes operates with a flexible production system that is capable of handling fast changes from one model to another.
(The company made significant investments in order to achieve this production capacity: 1.2 billion euros at the Rastatt plant and 800-million euros to build the plant in Kecskemét.)
The production line in Kecskemét
Dr. Dieter Zetsche, chairman of the Board of Management of Daimler AG and head of Mercedes-Benz Cars, is certainly happy with way things are going in the plants and in the market. When the third shift in Kecskemét was being announced, he said, "Most recently, our production has hardly kept up with the dynamic sales development of our compacts. That's why we are now switching our second compact car plant to three-shift operations as well--this allows us to serve the wishes of our customers around the world even better and timelier." He added, “We have the right products at the right time, and we also have an excellent production team. With its great dedication and the top-notch quality delivered on a daily basis, this team is one of the key reasons we're able to convince more and more customers with our A- and B-Class, the CLA and the new GLA."
It’s worth noting that Mercedes also has a contract with Valmet Automotive (which you may recall once built the Karma for Fisker) to produce A-Class models until 2016, with an estimated total output on the order of 100,000 units. And the GLA for the Chinese market will be built at a plant in Beijing, a joint-venture facility between Daimler and BAIC.