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Published: Thursday, 1/31/2008

Chrysler heeding criticism of quality of vehicle interiors

DETROIT FREE PRESS

DETROIT - Chrysler LLC is beginning to see the results of its efforts to improve vehicle interiors, which have been widely criticized in recent years.

The interior of the 2009 Dodge Ram full-size pickup is the first vehicle to benefit from a stepped-up effort by Chrysler to improve quality in that part of the vehicle through Chrysler's Advanced Interior Design Studio, which was formed 18 months ago.

This fall, the company is expected to dramatically make over the interiors of the Jeep Compass and the Patriot, according to people familiar with the plans.

One Chrysler executive said the improvements illustrate a change in the company's culture to quickly fix something that they know needs improvement instead of waiting several years for a scheduled redesign.

Several industry analysts who have seen inside the new Ram said they are impressed, but some said the improvements still do not beat the Ford F-series pickup, which was also redesigned.

But Erich Merkle, an analyst with IRN Inc., said of the Ram interior, "I think it's a dramatic improvement from where it was."

Michael Robinet, vice president for global forecasting at CSM Worldwide, said the progress is incomplete: "This Ram shows that they've made a step forward but they still have a ways to go."

Brian Moody, Edmunds.com senior road-test editor, praised the interior, saying the gauges, for instance, have a more precise look and chrome accents.

"The color choices also were very pleasing, textures were very nice, and the things you would touch did not feel overly plasticky," he said. "There is going to be plastic inside a car no matter what - that's OK. But it didn't feel cheap or overly plastic."

Chrysler has taken criticism over the last year for its interiors. For example Los Angeles Times critic Dan Neil ripped the new Sebring convertible, writing that it had "deprived plastic interiors" and that the vehicle was "cast in plastic worthy of a Chinese water pistol."

ConsumerReports.org had similar complaints about the Sebring Touring Sedan and other new Chryslers. "The Sebring's interior looks cheap and insubstantial," the magazines said. "Almost all of the touchable surfaces are hard. Panel fit has large, uneven gaps and unfinished edges."

Chrysler is aware of such criticisms.

"Quality is always something I have striven to achieve, but anything I release from my design department in clay is of the highest quality," said Trevor Creed, senior vice president of design. "It is sculpted to the highest quality, and then it is released into the rest of the system. And it's in the rest of the system that things don't happen exactly as we intended. What we've done now is take charge and realize that we all have to work together."

Designers are working with sales and marketing people riding herd over the projects to ensure design stays as intended, Chrysler executives said.



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