At the recent Chicago Auto Show Chrysler introduced "Core" versions of its Dodge Challenger SRT8 and Chrysler 300 SRT8. They promise to offer the well-conceived SRT level of performance in packages that are more affordable than the full, take-no-prisoners versions of the vehicles. The show also offered the opportunity for KBB.com Executive Editorial Director Jack R. Nerad to sit down with SRT President Ralph V. Gilles to talk about the all-new SRT Viper, the Core models and other current - and future - SRT projects.
NERAD: SRT is now being used as a brand for a vehicle, in addition to being the performance designation on other Chrysler brands' vehicles. Tell us a bit about that and how that works going forward.
GILLES: We decided to make the Viper our flagship, spiritually, but also actually. It's fully owned, so to speak, by the SRT brand. We market it as such. You're only going to find details about the Viper on SRT's website, so it really helps the brand feel complete. Of course, it's a bit like McLaren; you have the one car, and then they have AMG that does stuff with them, and then you have sprinklings of AMG influence in other products. We've kind of modeled ourselves that way, where we have great derivative products, and hopefully someday, there'll be another sister car to the Viper that's unique. Who knows?
NERAD: We're certainly okay with that idea. Sooner rather later.
GILLES: That would be my dream.
NERAD: Is it going to be more than your dream or is it . . .
GILLES: It's a goal; it's a long-term goal. I'm encouraged by what I'm hearing. Now that we've been talking to our constituents directly about SRT, I'm amazed at the fan base. Our website has just become a destination point. Our club events are growing stronger. What I was hoping happened. There is a kindred spirit between our Viper owners and our Challenger owners, our Charger owners, and even the old SRT 4 owners. They all get each other, and that's really cool. We're forcing them ...to coexist. They discover each other and they realize, "Hey, we're all in this together," so they end up liking SRT in general. It happened at Carlisle for the first time. We had the Viper Club show up at what was traditionally a Mopar event. It was kind of cool to see.
NERAD: That intermingling and how well they seem to get along had to be gratifying.
GILLES: Yeah, because whether you make $1 million a year or a couple hundred thousand or less, you're still an enthusiast.
NERAD: Give us the high, hard ones on Viper these days with the new Viper rolling off the assembly line.
GILLES: We're building customer units; we started last Monday. We've been holding ourselves to a very, very high standard on execution, so we weren't releasing the cars. We delayed launch almost three months now, because of quality concerns, self-imposed things like gaps, fits, just stuff like that. Now we're ready. We're building customer cars; we'll be shipping probably in the next 6 weeks or so. I'm excited to see that, the final feedback.
NERAD: Yeah, absolutely. And initial sales have been strong, haven't they?
GILLES: Our first allocation was sold out pretty quickly. We'll see. I think the going back to Le Mans is going to be a big deal for us that will help get the car out there again. It was launched, it's been launching for a whole year, so people are like, "Is it out, or not?"
NERAD: Yeah, exactly.
GILLES: It's going to be good to see them on the road, in people's hands; we'll get the word of mouth, and hopefully, they'll realize how much passion is in that vehicle. The execution of that vehicle I'm very proud of; the quality, the way the car feels, the reliability of it. I think owners will be astonished. The ones that had Vipers before and the ones that are new to it will be like, "Wow. This is what SRT is really made of."
NERAD: Your parent company has Ferrari and other very vaunted brands. Has that played a part in making this new Viper maybe a bit different than the previous one?
GILLES: In the way . . . I'll never forget the first time, I think it was back in the summer of '09, when Sergio [Marchionne] drove the old car. He looked at me like, "This thing needs a lot of work, Gilles." He challenged us to bring the car to world-class standards in terms of execution, finish, materials. He said, "Okay, we can do a Viper, but if we're going to do it, it's going to be world-class," and that's exactly what I think we've done. We've really worked hard. That was his influence, and he's used to that [exoticars like Ferraris], he's exposed to those kinds of cars all the time, so that would be the influence [of the parent company.]
NERAD: What do you think is the coolest thing about the new Viper? If you had to say one thing, what would it be?
GILLES: I think it's that it's still a Viper. Viper's become an adjective. The journalists, people who have driven the car, say, "Thank you. It's still a Viper. It's new; it's all that. It's better made and all that, but it's still a Viper." I'm glad that it's become an iconic thing. It's American and it's unique. I don't know. I'm just happy it's still there.
NERAD: There's something totally visceral about it.
GILLES: Yes. It's pure. It has all the modern stuff: It's got the exotic panels, it's got the infotainment, the layout. Somehow when you drive it, it puts a huge grin on your face. It's one of the fastest cars starting under $100,000. I think it's one of the fastest cars you can buy, period, for that money.
NERAD: That's not bad, is it? Bring us up to speed on the other SRT products as they stand right now.
GILLES: At the Chicago Show today, we just launched two new versions called Core, core models of the Challenger and the 300. What these are, are a back-to-basics formula. We had a little bit of this as an experiment with the Super Bee last year, and it was very successful, where the cars transacted quite a bit lower than their luxury counterparts, but performance was still there. The cars actually are lighter because we removed some of the features, like panoramic sunroof on the 300. It's got a different type of wheel; it's got ballistic cloth versus leather. Instead of carbon fiber, we have different inlays. You still get the Performance steering wheel, though. In all that, you end up with a car that's nearly 100 pounds lighter and costs under $45,000. That car, especially the 300, has no equal. There's nothing I can think of that you can go 174 miles per hour if you wanted to on the track, and then carry your family to the restaurant moments later. It's a pretty special car.
NERAD: There's something nice about rear drive.
NERAD: It gives you some flexibility.
GILLES: We had a lot of fun on the Challenger. The Challenger is a great nameplate, a great brand. We never stop churning the creative wheel with that vehicle, so we're choosing two new colors. We've brought back a version of Hemi-orange, a high-impact orange, and then also Plum Crazy, which our owners have been asking us for. "When are you going to bring Plum Crazy out? When are you going to do it? When are you going to do it?" We finally have a true, beautiful, metallic Plum Crazy.
NERAD: How about Jeep?
GILLES: Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT is a brand new vehicle. Actually, it got an early refresh. We have a 2014 model year already. We'll be shipping those out in a few months. Fantastic vehicle. That has evolved, and technologically, we've been listening to our owners and the journalists, and they've been asking for little improvements here and there. We're bringing the 8-speed technology to the Grand Cherokee, so it has 8 speeds. The paddle shift came last year, but now the paddle system with the 8-speed makes for an amazing experience: Lightning-fast shifting, much improved in-gear acceleration times. The whole character of the car is different. We have our first unique SRT-branded steering wheel, which I'm very proud of, and a unique look on the outside, a new wheel. The car is a fantastic vehicle that is now more functional than ever. It has better towing. We went up to 1,700 pounds towing, so it's a really do-all performance SUV. Again, I'm struggling to find a competitor because nothing's out there.
NERAD: Yeah. That's a vehicle I really like a lot, and I always have. It strikes me that there's some real international appeal to that car. Is there?
GILLES: Yeah, it does very well, because we make a right-hand drive version and a left-hand drive, so it's popular. Not huge numbers, but it's popular all over the world. It can be sold as it's designed. It's one of the vehicles, styling-wise too, it works. It's a handsome aesthetic that has a bit of a Euro-feel already. It always has, as the modern-day Grand Cherokee, so it helps the appeal. Americans love it, Europeans love it, Australians love it, Middle East, and the English, especially the English, actually love it.
NERAD: What can we expect next from SRT?
GILLES: I think you're going to see consistent execution. We're really working on getting our game up there. We are going to continue working with partners like Bilstein, Brembo, Pirelli, and Goodyear. We're trying to work with the highest end companies we can, like Harman Kardon in our sound systems. At the same time, we're continually adjusting our model mix a little bit, like the Core models that we saw. Long-term, I want to get into an entry model, some kind of smaller SRT, long-term.
GILLES: Perhaps something along those lines, maybe.
NERAD: Maybe? Okay. All right. SRT, to me, has always seemed to sort the vehicles out so well. You're choosing the right stuff, you're putting it all together in a way that the real high-level tuner would do, which is, I guess, what you're all about, right?
GILLES: The secret of that is, you say choosing the right stuff, I say choosing the right people. If you look at the extended team of about 60 engineers, a very small group of designers and myself who all work for SRT, we're cut from the same cloth. We actually echo our owners almost perfectly. We're very much like our owners; we're all enthusiasts. Almost every one of my engineers has a project car at home or they race or something. When you have people like that working on the cars, they intrinsically get it, and they make sure to mind the details.
NERAD: Anything else you think our visitors should know about SRT before we sign off?
GILLES: Wow. I'd say that I think it's here to stay. You've seen a lot of performance brands come and go. I want to make sure SRT is sustainable, so we're always going to chase performance. We have an eye on fuel economy. We have an eco-button in the Grand Cherokee, actually, in all of our '13s. We're trying to find a way to coexist peacefully in this new day and age. Our parent company gets it, and we get it inside of the company. There's always going to be a performance lover out there, so fear not.
NERAD: Terrific. Thanks so much for being with us. We appreciate it.
GILLES: It's a lot of fun.
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