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Detroit— The Dodge Charger is coming back, but the General Lee is not. Or at least not until the movie version of the 1980s TV show “The Dukes of Hazzard” is released this summer.

Two decades after the original Charger was put out to pasture, Chrysler reintroduced the car at a press preview at the North American International Auto Show. Bo and Luke Duke's Charger — a Confederate flag adorned General Lee — was hardly politically correct by current standards, but it is one of television's best known cars.

“That car is very dear to our hearts,” said Ralph Gilles, a top Chrysler designer whose studio was given the task of reinventing the Charger. He added that he was “not so much trying to do the next version of that car,” but seeking to create a practical sedan “with attitude.”

Chrysler, a division of DaimlerChrysler of Germany, had a promising year in 2004, signaling that the 1998 merger of Daimler-Benz and Chrysler might be starting to gel. An important contributor was Gilles (pronounced jeel), a Montreal native of Haitian descent who is the industry's designer of the moment.

Gilles runs Studio 3, the Chrysler workshop that created the Chrysler 300 sedan and the Dodge Magnum wagon. Both vehicles helped Chrysler achieve a rare feat in Detroit: The division's operating profit surged to $1.3 billion in the first nine months of 2004 in contrast to a loss of $806 million in the period a year earlier.

The Chrysler 300 sedan is also the best evidence so far of how the Daimler-Chrysler merger was intended to work. The car combines American styling, like slit windows and a bolder grille, with German engineering — in this case, components derived from the Mercedes E-class cars. As a result, the 300 was the first passenger car to be one of Chrysler's top-selling vehicles in more than a decade, despite largely avoiding rebates and other incentives.

Gilles has had success building on what Detroit used to be good at — ostentation.

“We, in a way, turned away from that market,” he said. “We focused so heavily on SUVs and minivans and trucks that, honestly, we probably didn't put our best foot forward on the passenger car market.”

While all three domestic automakers have talked about making passenger cars cool again, it was the styling of the 300 Series sedan that found fans like the rapper Snoop Dogg, who drives a black 300C. And the Magnum looks like a station wagon built by Balco labs.

“It's bringing back what's good about American cars,” Gilles said. “American cars have to be about not just a great car, but also a great-looking car, and an artful car — a car that says more about transportation than someone who's interested in going from Point A to B.”

“Growing up in the ‘80s, you're privy to some pretty ugly cars,” Gilles, who is 34, said, “so you think, hey, I could do better.”

He was hired by Chrysler straight out of the College for Creative Studies, a Detroit art school that has a top car-design program. His first assignment was to sketch a speedometer needle. But by 2001 he was promoted to take over Studio 3, one of seven Chrysler studios. He oversees six designers, 11 clay modelers and five engineers.

Like most designers, he dresses the part. On a recent morning at Chrysler headquarters in Auburn Hills, Mich., he ticked off his clothing brands for a reporter: Nautica watch, dark shirt and pants from Banana Republic, shoes by Skechers.

“The tie is from France,” he said, looking for the label. “I love it because it looks like carbon fiber. So does the jacket, which is by some Italian guy.”

The Charger, Dodge Magnum and Chrysler 300 will be built on the same engineering base at a Chrysler plant in Brampton, Ontario, near Toronto. Gilles said that by creating a new interior and exterior look for a similarly engineered car, the company developed Charger in two years.

Otherwise, he said, “it probably would have taken five years to do and it would be a different business case altogether.”

The new Charger is the latest attempt by Detroit to recapture an old icon. It could be a tough sell. In 2003, GM repackaged a car from its Australian Holden division as a Pontiac GTO, but enthusiasts derided its bland styling. A redesigned Ford Mustang, the granddaddy of the muscle cars that never went away, echoed the original coupe and earned much critical praise last year.

By contrast, the new Charger is a four-door sedan instead of a two-door coupe. The theory is that the somewhat tamed Charger will appeal to a broader audience than a coupe.

As sedans go, the Charger has the overstated look that Chrysler wants for its Dodge brand, with coupe-like curves and a grille that juts out like a shark's nose.

Sheet metal is extended over the top of the headlights, as if the car has an almost comically furrowed brow.

“Just like a person has an expression on their face, this car has one too,” Gilles said, adding, “In the company, a lot of people did comment, ‘Wow, this car looks like it's angry.”'

Published on 2/21/2005
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