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Chrysler (again) works to design itself a miracle

January 11, 2009|Dan Neil

AUBURN HILLS, MICH. — The third floor of Chrysler's global headquarters, the Product Design Office, is the most secure part of the building. The rare visitor who walks down these brightly lit halls has already stood for two bag searches and had his cellphone checked to make sure it's not a camera.

The studios themselves -- echoing open spaces under rows of fluorescent lights -- are scrubbed of sensitive materials before outsiders are allowed in. White boards are erased and car covers thrown over new projects that can't be moved.

It's here that Doug Quigley and his small band of inventors are working frantically trying to engineer a miracle.

Or pull another rabbit out of Chrysler's hat. Or wrench victory, with actual wrenches, from the jaws of defeat. Choose your favorite metaphor that conveys the longest of odds and the slimmest of hopes.

Quigley, engineering executive for Chrysler's ENVI team, and his boss, director Lou Rhodes, are responsible for developing a line of radically different vehicles for Chrysler: plug-in hybrid minivans, Jeeps and crossovers that go 40 miles on all-electric power, as well as all-electric sports cars that bolt from 0 to 60 mph in 4.8 seconds and go 100 to 150 miles on a charge.

(ENVI is derived from the first four letters of "environment," with "NV" standing for "new vehicles.")

These vehicles, says Quigley, could "not only save the company but even the industry, and even at some point affect things like national security."

To those unfamiliar with Chrysler's long, erratic history, Quigley's pronouncements may seem unrealistic, or downright crazy. After all, Chrysler is hanging on by its fingernails. All 30 of its factories are shuttered until at least Jan. 19. In December, the company's monthly sales plunged 53% compared with a year earlier.

Even with the recent $4-billion government bridge loan, most experts think Chrysler can't survive the year as an independent company.

Quigley, though, is tuning out the predictions of doom. "We're not going to listen to it," he says. "It's destructive and it doesn't change a damn thing."

It's dark all over Chrysler-land, but on the third floor of HQ here in Auburn Hills, the lights burn all night.


Out of the ditch

The fourth-and-long, Hail-Mary mentality has been part of Chrysler's corporate culture from the beginning. Caroming between disaster and prosperity for 80 years, the company has saved itself time and again with great engineering or expressive, emotional design (though, it should be noted, rarely both at the same time).

Founder Walter P. Chrysler was called the "greatest doctor of sick automobile companies" the world had ever known. He saved Buick for General Motors, then rode to the rescue of Willy-Overland, Maxwell, Chalmers and Dodge before starting his eponymous company in 1925.

In the 1950s, when sales plunged because of stodgy styling, Chrysler put the portfolio in the hands of a young designer named Virgil Exner, whose "Forward Look" rejuvenated the company and sent sales soaring.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s -- around the time Chairman Lee Iacocca asked for and received a $1.5-billion government bailout to stave off bankruptcy -- Chrysler's product boffins created the front-wheel-drive K-cars and minivans, which became huge hits.

Facing yet another sales collapse in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Chrysler developed the LH sedans, the so-called "cab-forward" cars, as well as the Ram truck, Jeep Grand Cherokee and ferocious Dodge Viper sports car. Again, sales soared. Even as recently as 2003, Chrysler -- while it was saddled by a disadvantageous merger with German carmaker Daimler -- launched the 300C sedan, another box-office smash.

This oscillation between adversity and prosperity has happened so regularly that it seems to be part of the corporate metabolism, a reflex. How such a neurotic tendency to let things get out of hand becomes ingrained into a huge organization over decades is something of a mystery, the stuff of management textbooks.

But it does seem to be that "when things get tough, we do engage harder," says Quigley. "We get even more creative and more inventive, and management does empower us."

But of course, he says, smiling, "that's the same management that gets us into these messes."


Producing electric

The public will get a good look at Chrysler's electric-car plans today when it reveals two new "production-intent" vehicles at Detroit's North American International Auto Show: a plug-in hybrid version of the Jeep Patriot compact utility, and a pure electric vehicle, called the Circuit, based on the British sports car Lotus Europa.

These join three ENVI prototypes unveiled last year: a plug-in hybrid Chrysler minivan and Jeep Wrangler, and another electrified Lotus, similar to the Tesla Roadster. Chrysler has committed to bringing at least one advanced electric vehicle to the market next year.

"These are not concept vehicles," says Quigley. "We can't afford that anymore. These are intended for production."

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