Interview with Ralph Gilles, Global Head, Jeep Design

By Ishan Raghava | on March 9, 2021

With Jeep India charting out an aggressive plan for India with the launch of 4 new products – the locally manufactured Wrangler and three new products – and the new Grand Cherokee in the pipeline, we speak with Ralph Gilles, Global Head of Jeep Design, about design changes in terms of hybrid powertrains, the Jeep legacy, and his idea of reimaging the design of Jeep's legendary products instead of relying on the retro design.

In terms of emissions and efficiency, the Wrangler needs to be as aerodynamically efficient as possible. But, at the same time, you also need to maintain its iconic design. So, how difficult is it for you and your team to balance the two aspects?

It is difficult. Well, I’m not going to lie, it’s not the most aerodynamic shape out of the box (laughs). But there’s a lot of subtle touches that we’ve given it, which you can’t necessarily see, including some air dam design, grille management, air-flow through the grille, and even the roof now has a curvature. I could go on and on, but the point is that we’re trying our best to modernise without losing what makes it a Wrangler. It is a challenge, but we spend a lot of time in the wind tunnel to sort out the details.

Ralph Gilles Global Head Of Jeep Design 2

We’re expecting a larger 3-row SUV in India from Jeep pretty soon. Was it a problem for your team to expand an existing design or is it a clean-sheet design?

Honestly, it’s really a new vehicle. It really has very little to do with the vehicle that you’re thinking of – the current Compass. The new vehicle has its own design, its own element, and its own theme, and it’s going to be optimised for what it will offer. It’s going to be the first 3-row SUV in that segment from us, and we take that quite seriously. And when you get to see it, you’ll know what I mean. It has beautiful unique proportions and is very functional and very capable. So, stay tuned. We’re quite excited about it.

For the 3-row SUV, will the design inspiration come from, say, the Grand Cherokee, or is it going to be something completely different?

I’ll tell you this much – I consider the Wrangler to have one design DNA strain of the Jeep brand and the Grand Cherokee to have another design DNA strain. And the new product will come from the Grand Cherokee’s design strain.

The new Wagoneer is a brand-new start for you, design-wise. How has the feedback been for the new design?

I’ll be honest with you, a handful of people expected the Wagoneer to be a lot more retro and said that it doesn’t look anything like the original, and we expected that. And internally we had that debate. We had the original design in our studios, and we looked at it and wondered if we should do a retro design, but we quickly decided that it wouldn’t be fair to the new Wagoneer and that it needed to have its own design language. Coming to feedback about the design, our dealers absolutely love it. They think it has the right amount of presence. And despite being as opulent as it is, it somehow doesn’t look ostentatious.

Jeep Grand Wagoneer Front

The New Jeep Grand Wagoneer Concept

Given that people are a bit disappointed about the new Wagoneer not sporting a retro design, I’m assuming we won’t see any wood-panelled Woody version of the new Wagoneer?

The first thing, people did was to photoshop wood on the vehicle. I mean literally within seconds of its reveal, it was already photoshopped. I joked about it last year that the most liked picture in my Instagram profile was this Wagoneer with wooden panels photoshopped on to it, and I was so upset about it. So, I’ll let the aftermarket put vinyl on the side of the car – we won’t offer that option.


Jeep Grand Wagoneer Rear


The New Jeep Grand Wagoneer Concept


Jeep products have traditionally been powered by large petrol engines, but with emissions policy tightening significantly, you will have to introduce other powertrains, like the first Plug-In Hybrid Wrangler that you’ve introduced. As a designer, do you think the future is going to be a lot more challenging for you in terms of fitting in the newer powertrains in vehicles?

No, as a designer, I actually revel in it. I love new opportunities and new challenges. And reconfiguring a vehicle around whatever the powertrain is one of the most important challenges. If you think about the vehicles produced over the past 90 to 100 years, they have had a very similar layout, so as we evolve to newer layouts, it will offer new opportunities, new proportions, and I look forward to all of that.

A question for Partha Datta, MD, Jeep India - India is in a bit of flux with regard to fuel policy. We’ve finally made the transition to BS 6, and with the fuel price at an all-time high right now, do you find Jeep’s split between petrol and diesel in India changing?

Partha Datta: I think there will be some changes, for sure. But Jeep being a premium brand, and the fact that people expect performance from a Jeep, I think in this segment and other premium segments, we'll have a significant amount of diesel sales. But I expect that in the entry-level segment, we’ll see a swing because BS 6, on account of the technology, has raised overall prices of automobiles quite a bit, so you’re right about that. I don’t expect to see it in our part of the premium segment, but in lower segments, yes, we expect to see a lot more petrol sales.


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