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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

(continued from page 1)

"People are spending a lot more time in their vehicles these days," points out Chrysler Group's interior and exterior design chief, Joe Dehner. Americans are moving farther away from work, doubling the average miles driven on a daily basis in the last 20 years, according to a study by the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University. More miles and more cars mean more traffic. The hours the typical motorist loses to tie-ups, the study found, nearly quintupled during the same period.

Slowed to a stop on the New Jersey Turnpike, Washington Beltway or the I-405 in Los Angeles, you're likely to begin looking inward. You start to appreciate every subtle touch of sophistication. But you also begin to notice every tiny flaw, whether it's an uneven gap between panels, a flimsy knob or a shiny piece of what one observer derisively calls "K-Mart plastic."

Consumers are also demanding more functionali interiors. Stuck in traffic, they want to be entertained, informed, even productive. So one of the biggest challenges for today's interior designer is to integrate all the electronic gadgets you'd expect in your home or office—from iPods to e-mail to DVD theater systems—into your car.

TOUCHING THE SENSES
"A good interior touches all the senses," contends Pete Lawlis, who has spent several years as director of interior design at GM's Cadillac division. OK, maybe you don't like to lick your steering wheel, but who hasn't been lulled by the sweet smell of a new car, especially one lavishly outfitted with leather? On a Cadillac, that familiar scent is maintained almost indefinitely by a special chemical that the automotive supplier, U.S. Leather, actually adds to the back of the leathers. Volkswagen, meanwhile, has a department solely devoted to refining the interior smell of its vehicles.

Sound and the need to sometimes deaden it is another frequent challenge. Lexus has built a reputation spending lots of money on things you'll likely never see—or hear—such as "sandwich metal" panels layered with sound-deadening materials like asphalt between two pieces of sheet metal. You can hit 100 in the new GS430 and hear someone in the back seat whisper. But the automaker also spends money to make noise, such as the firm thunk of a closing door and the crisp click of a switch.

Tactile feedback reinforces our perceptions about quality. You want that switch to feel solid, yet smooth. Nissan took some heat because the knobs on the latest version of its Quest minivan felt flimsy. Even the smallest details, like the temperature you feel when you grab hold of a chrome doorknob, will influence a person's perception, says Richard Chung, a designer with JCI, a major seat and interior components supplier.

Visual perceptions still dominate, though, when it comes to evaluating an interior. Consumers are becoming increasingly sophisticated about what they see, according to Ford's global design director, J Mays. That's not surprising, he believes, because even mainstream stores like Target and Sears are emphasizing design with simple goods like candleholders and water pitchers.

Even the most subtle mistakes, like an ill-fitting glove box door, stand out like stumps in the swamp, find data from the California market research firm JD Power and Associates. Manufacturers know that with overall quality now so high across the industry, something as seemingly insignificant as a poorly designed cup holder could determine which manufacturer comes out on top.

Computer-Aided Design, or CAD, technology plays a major role in improving interiors as it permits a designer to try out literally dozens of possible cabin layouts before ever building the first prototype. Researchers at the General Motors Technical Center, in Warren, Michigan, often test out their ideas in the "Cave," a virtual reality system. It's a way to let someone climb inside a digital interior in which the only thing that's real is the seat. Everything else is projected on the walls of the Cave and seen as three-dimensional reality through special high-tech glasses. An engineer can reshape things while the subject is still inside, speeding up the design process immeasurably.

MATERIALS MATTER
What makes a good interior? As with a vehicle's exterior, a carmaker needs to begin with good fit-and-finish. Everything must line up precisely. Gaps should be small and uniform. You shouldn't see exterior colors through openings in the doorways. Consistency is a word you hear a lot from interior designers. Colors, textures, grains—all should match or complement one another, from the top of the instrument panel to the back package deck.


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