Chicago 2011: Shining (Penta)Star

If you have read this site over the years, one particular automaker shows up on these pages as a through-line. Why? I have always been a fan of said automaker.

Then again, how many times have I stated how much I’ve been in Chrysler’s corner? Every time the Auburn Hills-based company is down, it always gets back up from the canvas. It always innovates through historically top-notch engineering and design.

It came as almost no surprise that I was able to connect with Chrysler prior to arriving on the show floor. Being an independent blogger among automotive professionals, I was brought into the realm of the Pentastar as an originator of relevant and topical material using strictly electronic media. For the two days I worked the show’s floor, I was never too far from the Pentastar’s beacons. They began following me on Twitter – something I never expected.

So, obviously, the following stories from this year’s Chicago Auto Show were all about Chrysler. Enjoy the salad…

COUPLE OF BAD MAMMA JAMMAS: Wednesday’s Dodge press conference had a few stars glowing in front of us. The brand’s CEO, Ralph Gilles, made sure that any vehicle applying the R/T badge would have real performance engineered into the model instead of just being a trim level. The idea behind the R/T was to create a performance variant that wore its credentials on its sleeve.

The Dodge Journey and Durango will have R/T models. Also, the Durango will have a variant called the Heat with only two rows of seats, available mostly in rear-wheel-drive and some attitude in its jaunt. However, one R/T model will have a few people puzzled – until they experience it: The Grand Caravan. The minivan gets an R/T version with body-color grille, all black interior, modified suspension, specific wheels and tires and a meaner stance never seen in a minivan. This is what Gilles and the Dodge team calls the “ManVan.”

A Grand Caravan R/T is not exactly a vehicle for every family. Most minivan drivers are mothers with children. Fathers are usually forced (sometimes willingly) to take the wheel with the family in tow. Yet, some fathers have plenty of testosterone to retreat to man sheds with plenty of projects to do inside, to go fishing, skiing or any active sport he may excel in and love his children well. This is why the ManVan was created.

Yeah, but some men would rather protect their testosterone by refusing to drive a minivan (despite the return of the boxy conveyance into our consciousness). No worries, man – there’s a car for you: the Charger SRT8. Nevermind the 2011 Charger had been re-imagined with design cues from 1969 integrated with a meaner snout. The 5.7litre HEMI R/T was simply not enough – well, in Dodge’s eyes. It must have more! The 2012 SRT8 will have a version of the Challenger’s new 6.4litre HEMI V8 with 465HP on tap. It also comes with a more monstrous snout in all black to put the fear of your favorite deity upon the tarmac.

To me, the Challenger will always be the car I’d take a companion and some luggage somewhere for the weekend – and grind out a commute the rest of the week. The Charger is for families who prefer to go fast. In my case, it’s taking along friends who don’t mind having 465HP (or less) on tap to take us somewhere rather quickly. This SRT8 makes no apologies for what it is and how it goes about accomplishing it duties. You gotta love a car like that!

2011 Chrysler 300 2

CONFIRMED – PROMISES FULFILLED: The all-day presser back in November, 2009 yielded an action plan for Chrysler to emerge out of bankruptcy with Fiat’s help. When the teasers of what the immediate future would bring were released, the excitement level was raised to maximum. I can confirm that the first fruit of the five-year action plan are for real.

By ensuring that the Dodge Journey, Grand Caravan and Avenger, Chrysler 200 (formerly the Sebring) and Town & Country, and Jeep Compass received some substantial nips, tucks and engineering tweaks, Chrysler made good on improving current products before merging platforms with Fiat. The results were better than I expected

My complaints about the Journey’s instrument panel were addressed with a handsome, high quality setup designed for easy reading of instruments and better access to the HVAC and audio systems. The seats inside the Journey felt much better to live with. Exterior-wise, the 200 (along with the Convertible) and Compass looked handsome – a much needed improvement over their predecessors. Even the Avenger is a bit more pleasing to the eye.

The two cars I wanted to see the most were the Dodge Charger and Chrysler 300. The Charger almost became my go-to “comfort food” car if it weren’t so hard at a few touch points. I can attest that this will not be the case. The touch points felt right and the entire cabin experience absolutely won me over. To be perfectly honest, I like the Charger better than the 300 – not because of Ralph Gilles or the ”Never Neutral” marketing campaign. The new Charger brings out a personality in me that is rooted in Reseda inside of a 1965 Plymouth Satellite that never escaped in today’s sports-loving, conga-drumming, car-loving, semi-fashionable, Bear-identified out gay man.

Expect to see some of these new and revised products Chrysler featured and reviewed in this blog. I can assure you that this company is on the right direction. All Chrysler needs is to continue its path towards growth through the next wave of new products – mostly based on Fiat’s platforms. Right now, I can honestly say that they’ve kept their promises with improved products geared towards attain their goals.

This is why I spent a bit more time with Chrysler (on the show floor and virtually) during the show.
Ralph Gilles

HE IS THE MAN: Bob Lutz used to patrol the same halls as Ralph Gilles did. Lutz had a history that was born with shooting from the hip. If Lutz announced something would happen – especially products in concept form going into eventual production – you can see the media relations team cower in the corner. He is “Maximum Bob” after all.

Gilles is a different kind of automotive leader. As the CEO of the Dodge brand and Senior Vice President of Design for all of Chrysler, Gilles doesn’t just sit in his office at Auburn Hills. He is an active person running foot races, driving racing cars and enthusiastically bringing his troops across the line with exciting products under the guidance of Sergio Marchionne and the hybrid Chrysler-Fiat team. On Thursday, Gilles made it clear that he is indeed an “enthusiast” and a “family man” – the kind personality Dodge truly wants from their staff and their customers. This is exactly what makes Gilles tick and will drive Dodge towards success in the near future.

I was lucky to be in his presence twice this week in Chicago: Once for the Dodge press conference featuring the 2012 Charger SRT8 and for a social media breakfast that Chrysler Communications’ online media editorial director invited me to. What can you say about Gilles – a man who kisses a car as it rolls onto the stage? A man who has driven a Viper ACR to its limit through the corkscrew at Laguna Seca – setting a track record in the process. A man who also had an idea about the ideal minivan – the ManVan, of course!

Towards the end of his post-events remarks, I didn’t have any specific product or brand-based questions to ask him. I quickly fell back on the work done for the 2004 Chicago Show – the GLBT angle. I asked him what kind of Dodge would welcome us to the brand. Gilles response is simple: “Welcome!” Gilles knows the GLBT market and wants to bring Dodge closer to us. This is good news, especially when there’s the ManVan, a couple of mean Durangos and some even meaner looking Chargers and Challengers on offer at your local dealership.

If there was one moment I can take away from this coverage of the Chicago Auto Show, it was watching the coolest guy in the automotive industry work. Believe me, his energy, passion, enthusiasm and openness to push the boundaries of normality in the industry is infectious – even to the hardest journo working the show floor.

Despite what Leo Durocher says about nice guys finishing last, Gilles is in first place in my book.

All photos by Randy Stern

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