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Inside Out

How superior interiors became the focus for automakers trying to win buyers in a crowded market
Paul A. Eisenstein
From the Print Edition:
Emeril Lagasse, Sept/Oct 2005

How superior interiors became the focus for automakers trying to win buyers in a crowded market From famine to feast, General Motors' Saturn brand is about to embark on a billion-dollar makeover, a desperate campaign to keep the once-heralded nameplate from fading into automotive oblivion, much like Oldsmobile, Plymouth and Packard before it.

Not all that long ago, Saturn was the "maverick" brand among General Motors divisions, but in recent years, it had lost its edge, the victim of an internal corporate rivalry that left Saturn starved for cash and product. The automotive media savaged several recent entries, and even the most loyal Saturn buyers gave them ho-hum responses.

So the next three years will see the GM brand more than double the segments in which it competes. Saturn will launch the new Aura sedan and Sky roadster in 2006. The two-seat Sky will snatch the attention with a style similar to the sporty Pontiac Solstice roadster, but with a higher price tag that buys more power and sophistication. Saturn aims to move the Aura more upmarket as well, with a decidedly European design.

Both are likely to win buyers, but not just with sexy exteriors. The Sky will have one of the most refined interiors ever to roll off a domestic assembly line. The center console, for one thing, will trade the cheesy-looking black plastic panels and buttons found in most GM products for chrome and piano black. And with the Aura, the interior is the real emphasis, the goal being to make you feel as if you're sitting in an elegant living room.

Think of the Aura's coach as something you'd find in Architectural Digest, boasts GM's design director, Ed Welburn. The show car that debuted at last January's Detroit auto show featured an unusual crosshatch leather that received such wide praise it's now planned for production. The same Rustica leather is used for door inserts, the steering wheel and the shift knob, as well as the Aura's seats. Indirect ambient lighting adds to the architectural feel. The Aura show car featured the sort of chrome sill plates found on top-line luxury cars, along with titanium knobs and buttons. Look for those touches in the production car as well.

Saturn's products aren't unique. On the whole, General Motors intends to invest an average of $200 more on the interior of each vehicle, starting in 2006. And on some of its top-line models, such as the next-generation Cadillac CTS sedan, the figure is likely to run closer to $500, according to senior company sources. It might seem like an odd strategy when the automaker is handing out record incentives and posting massive losses, but it's fundamental to GM's future, insists "car czar" and Vice Chairman Bob Lutz. "Good exterior design," he is fond of saying, "gets you into the showroom. A good interior keeps you there."

Why have interiors become so important? Credit—or blame, if you prefer—competition. Industry analysts predict as many as 100 all-new or significantly updated cars, trucks and crossovers will make their debut in the United States this year, a figure that has been rising annually. All told, more than 250 different models and hundreds more modest variations are available to consumers. Standing out in that crowd isn't easy, especially for smaller manufacturers, so a company like Audi seeks every advantage it can find.

The luxury unit of Volkswagen AG was, in the mid-1980s, a weak alternative to better-known competitors, such as Mercedes-Benz and BMW. Battered in the United States by a safety scare that ultimately proved groundless, Audi teetered on the edge of insolvency, desperate to regain momentum. So the company that had always put a premium on cutting-edge exterior design shifted some of the emphasis to the interior. It was a "critical step," says Len Hunt, who until recently ran Audi's U.S. sales unit and now heads Volkswagen of America.

Now even GM's Lutz declares Audi the industry's interior benchmark. Audi's gauges are not only easy to read but define the term "jewel-like." Other luxury brands make lavish use of leather, wood and brushed aluminum. In an Audi those same materials envelope forms that are shaped with the sensual curves of fine sculpture. And the strategy pays. Global sales of products like the new A4 and A6 are soaring to record levels.

Other factors are also driving the newfound focus on interiors.

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