Business

Driven by design

Smart styling gives Chrysler a competitive edge

ROSS LAVER March 17 1997
Business

Driven by design

Smart styling gives Chrysler a competitive edge

ROSS LAVER March 17 1997

Driven by design

Business

Smart styling gives Chrysler a competitive edge

ROSS LAVER

As a small boy growing up in Ohio, Bob Boniface loved to draw pictures of cars. He scribbled them in the margins of his grade-school notebooks and on sheets of paper at his parents’ kitchen table. He tore photos of cars out of magazines, traced over them and added his own modifications: a sleeker hoodline here, a flared fender there, perhaps a menacing front grille for that muscular, ready-to-race look. He sketched cars in his spare time while earning a university degree in psychology and, later, during a two-year stint as a shareholder record keeper for a mutual fund company. Finally, at 23, he abandoned that job and applied to study design at Detroit’s Center for Creative Studies—hoping one day to make a living doing what he had always done for fun.

Boniface not only got his wish, but today, nine years later, he can claim credit for one of the most talked-about new designs in the car industry, the second-generation Chrysler Intrepid. Unveiled in January at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, the sporty 1998 Intrepid and its more elegant cousin, the Concorde— both of which go into production next September at the firm’s Bramalea, Ont., assembly plant—drew immediate praise from industry

experts, journalists and rival manufacturers. “The new Chryslers are gorgeous,” says Maryann Keller, a leading auto analyst and managing director of Furman Selz Inc. in New York City. “I hope that their quality, engineering and ride is as nice as their appearance, because Chrysler continues to lead the industry in design.”

Only a few years ago, any suggestion that Chrysler deserved praise for its design would have been met with disbelief—if not laughter. All through the 1970s and 1980s, a period when the firm twice slipped to the brink of bankruptcy, Chrysler factories turned out a succession of staid, boxy cars and trucks. Kept afloat by the popularity of its minivans, the company became synonymous with out-of-date engineering and substandard quality, factors that contributed to a steady loss of market share. “TTie perception, especially with young people, is that we don’t know how to build a quality car,” former Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca admitted in 1991.

The turnaround, when it came, was dramatic. In the fall of 1992, Chrysler introduced a new line of full-size cars code-named the LH models—the original Intrepid and Concorde, the Eagle Vision and the upscale New Yorker and LHS. The LH vehicles—industry wags joked that the designation stood for “last hope”—incorporated an innovative cab-forward design that has since become a corporate signature: by shortening the front hood and pushing the wheels to-

wards the corners, the designers created additional interior room without increasing the car’s overall length. The new cars were also better built than their predecessors, although they still lag behind competing models such as the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord in surveys of quality and customer satisfaction.

It was Chrysler’s good fortune to launch the LH cars just when the U.S. economy was beginning to catch fire. As sales rose and profits poured in, the company overhauled the rest of its lineup with a stylish new subcompact, the Neon, and an array of new midsize sedans and two-door coupes. On the truck side, Chrysler launched the highly successful Jeep Grand Cherokee, a redesigned Dodge Ram pickup—four times as popular as the previous version—and a re-engineered minivan with an optional driver’s side sliding door, an industry first. This year there is also a redesigned midsize pickup, the Dakota, a new sport-utility vehicle, the Dodge Durango, and an attention-grabbing $45,000 two-seater mod-

elled on a 1950s hot rod, the Plymouth Prowler.

If Chrysler’s recent financial performance proves anything, it is that, in their never-ending romance with the car, many buyers still care as much about smart, adventurous designs as they do about quality. For three years running, the company has been the world’s most profitable automaker on a per-vehicle basis. Its annual revenues are half those of Ford and one-third those of General Motors, but analysts say that Chrysler’s smaller size helps to keep it focused, nimble and quick.

Nowhere is that more obvious than in the speed and efficiency of its product-development operations. In the old days, it took Chrysler five years to go from concept to production of a new car. Its North American rivals still typically need four years to create a car from scratch; Ford spent six years and $8 billion to develop the midsize Ford Contour and Mercury Mystique. In contrast, Chrysler budgeted 31 months and $2.8 billion to produce the 1998 Intrepid and Concorde and three companion models that will go on sale next year, the Eagle Vision, Chrysler LHS and Chrysler 300. The cost includes $845 million for three new aluminum V-6 engines that will eventually be used in many of the company’s other cars and trucks. Chrysler says the new engines are more powerful, more fuel efficient and produce fewer emissions than their cast-iron predecessors.

Chrysler’s ability to develop the second-generation LH cars in such a short time owes much to its Japanese-inspired platform-design system. Instead of working in different departments, staff members from all key areas—design, engineering, manufacturing, marketing and finance—are brought together to work in teams. The system cuts down on unnecessary duplication and ensures that problems are solved early on, before costs get out of control.

The new Intrepid and Concorde are also the first cars at Chrysler to be designed entirely on computer. An advanced software system originally developed for the aviation industry ensures that all of those involved in the program, including outside suppliers, are kept abreast of the latest updates, saving time and money. “In effect, we build the car up electronically,” John Miller, Chrysler’s general manager of large car engineering, said in an interview at the company’s sprawling, $1.3-billion technology centre north of Detroit. “We never build mock-ups any more. It allows us to do things a lot faster and more accurately, maximizing every centimetre of space under the hood.” In the past, Miller says, it sometimes took weeks to determine the full consequences of a change in specifications. “Now, if an engineer changes his part and there are five or six other parts that mate to it, the following morning every one of those people will know by looking at their computer screens whether that created an interference condition.”

The most striking aspect of the 1998 sedans, however, is their dramatic styling, a marked contrast to the rather restrained, generic designs currently offered by most of the world’s other major automakers. All the exterior and interior body panels are new, as are the instrument panels, seats, suspension and brakes. Although the new Intrepid is built on the same wheelbase as the current version, the passenger compartment and trunk are larger and the car looks lower and sleeker. Access to the rear seat is improved with bigger door openings, and the headlamps—frequently criticized for being too weak on current LHs—are larger and produce more light.

Chrysler’s designers have also given the new models distinctive brand identities—an important consideration in marketing them to

BUSINESS.

different demographic groups. The current Intrepid, Concorde and Vision are visually similar except for front-end and taillight designs, but their successors share virtually no exterior sheet metal, except for the doors on the Concorde and Vision. Allowing for that degree of separation while staying within a tight budget required Chrysler’s manufacturing engineers to rethink their metal-stamping operations at the Bramalea plant.

According to the company, the new system uses a single set of tooling but is capable of turning out several differently styled body panels in quick succession.

“In my 32 years in the business,

I’d never seen that level of co-operation between design and manufacturing,” says John Herlitz,

Chrysler’s vice-president of product design. In return for the increased flexibility, he says, the design team agreed to eliminate the plastic lower-body cladding that had previously been used to give each model a slightly different appearance. The result is a line of vehicles that look more distinctive than their forebears

the carrying capacity of a minivan or sport-utility truck. “One of our goals is to appeal to people who are perhaps moving out of minivans and want to get back into cars,” Herlitz says. “With cab-forward, they won’t feel like all the space is being taken away from them.” Hall, who designed jewelry before landing a job sculpting clay models for Chrysler 12 years ago, says the goal of attracting a younger demographic was “rolling around in the back of my head for a while” before he settled on the idea of trying to capture the flavor of some landmark European cars. “I was asking people about their favorite cars of all time—Ferrari, E-type Jaguar, Aston-Martin.

What’s special about those cars is that they are all very sculptural. Then I thought, wouldn’t it be great if you could take some of the feel of those cars and put it on a four-door sedan. You’d have a car that was visually exciting but more practical than a sports car—something the common guy could own.”

The car Hall came up with incorporates a streamlined silhouette, a tapered rear end and a low, wide front grille similar to those on classic Ferraris. Like the Intrepid, the Concorde also features doors that are stamped as a single unit to improve fit

while being faster, cheaper and less complex to assemble.

In the case of the Intrepid, the design is sportier and more aggressive, with a sweeping roofline that gives what is essentially a four-door family sedan the look of a two-door coupe. ‘What hits me is the stance of the vehicle—how the wheels relate to the body, the wedge of the car, the high rear deck and the low nose,” says Boniface, 31, who joined Chrysler 4'A years ago after graduating from design school. “We went to great lengths to work the area between the fender and the [front] pillar and up over the roof, so it gives the impression of a single arc. It’s slippery without looking like a jelly bean—very purposeful.”

His counterpart on the Concorde project, 40-year-old designer Mark Hall, had a different mission. On average, purchasers of the current-model Concorde are in their mid-50s; Chrysler wanted to lower that to the mid-40s while giving the car a more sophisticated image. “The rule of thumb is that you can sell an older person a young man’s car, but you can’t do it the other way around,” Herlitz says. In addition, the company was hoping to attract aging baby boomers whose children have left home and who no longer need

and finish and reduce wind noise; the current models use a separate, multi-piece door frame that is tricky to assemble and prone to quality problems. Beneath the surface, there is a new aluminum rear-suspension brace and a rubberisolated front subframe that is intended to reduce what car engineers call NVH—noise, vibration and harshness. “Our customers were telling us that the overall NVH of the current model is not where it should be with respect to the competition that is out there today,” Miller says. “That led us to look at the basic architecture of the car, to figure out how we could redesign it to make it stiffer, better-handling and quieter.”

Whether that effort was a success will only be known when the first of Chrysler’s new sedans hit the road next fall, with prices ranging from about $22,000 to $31,000, depending on options. In that bracket, they will face stiff competition; the Toyota Camry, the Honda Accord and the Ford Taurus are all strong sellers, while GM is now revising its lineup with a range of new four-door sedans. On styling, however, the industry consensus is that Chrysler sets the pace. “Compared to the car it’s replacing, the new Concorde is visually a lot tighter,” Hall says. “There aren’t as many lines, mouldings and extraneous parts.” Boniface says that his goal with the Intrepid was to “enhance the things that are good about the car and solve the problems.” Judging by appearances, all those years spent sketching cars as a kid paid off handsomely. □