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
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Stylists also need to ensure that their studio design translates into the car rolling off the assembly line. All too often, a manufacturer will specify a color, such as charcoal gray, then find that 10 different component suppliers have each delivered pieces noticeably different in appearance and feel.
When Ford launched a retro version of its Thunderbird in 2001, the car won plenty of praise for its classic styling and muscular power train. But it was lambasted for an underwhelming interior with materials that didn't match in color or graining and that certainly didn't reflect the T-bird's overall design theme. The cabin was "the wart on the nose" of the vehicle, lamented a Ford executive who wisely declined to be identified by name.
The biggest complaint? The different plastics Ford had used. These days, plastic is the material of choice for automotive designers and engineers. It's less expensive, easier to shape and better meets interior safety requirements than traditional metals and woods. But there are lots of different forms of the material from which to choose. And on the whole, the industry is moving away from those hard, greasy-looking black plastics that look as if they emerged from the local bargain store's remainder bin.
The newest forms are soft to the touch and easy on the eye. So-called slush-molded plastics are especially popular in Europe, where the battle of the interior first got under way, but the technique is migrating to America. It makes it easy to mold extremely complicated shapes while all but eliminating harsh edges and uneven gaps.
The newest plastics may look far more expensive, but when you're talking about a luxury car, it's hard to move too far away from traditional high-end materials like wood and leather. According to Seton Co., a major automotive materials supplier, sales of cars with leather seats should near 4.5 million by 2007, up some 600 percent since the early 1990s. We're not just talking luxury cars anymore. It's the interior of choice for 60 percent of Mustang buyers this year. Even on the automaker's big F-Series pickup, leather is chosen by 25 percent of customers. Ford also reports that 30 percent of so-called entry-midsize customers go with leather and 44 percent say they'll order it on their next vehicle.
Personal tastes do change. Just visit a classic car show, such as California's annual Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance. Check out some of the oldest chauffeured automobiles and you're likely to find the driver sat on leather, his passengers on fabric. Back then, leather was prized for its durability, but cloth was the upscale option.
Like many of his competitors, Pat Schiavone is hunting for the materials of the future. "There are plenty of exciting alternatives out there," says the director of design for Ford, Lincoln and Mercury cars, "and some of them are more environmentally friendly, too." Ford has shown several examples lately of what it has in mind, including the Fairlane, a concept blending elements of a station wagon, minivan and SUV that debuted at January's Detroit auto show. Visually striking, if a good bit out of the ordinary, was the show car's use of unfinished wood elements, including the top of the instrument panel. It looked as if Ford grabbed a piece of birch plywood from Home Depot, cut it, and then steamed it into shape. There were complementing accent pieces throughout the three-row cabin, which also featured the sort of designer chairs you might have found in a Noguchi or Eileen Gray catalogue. The backs of the seats were covered with a woven paper that is not only novel but recyclable.
Nontraditional materials are definitely coming into vogue. Italian automaker Maserati tapped the fashion world for ideas and came up with a lightweight, mesh-over-mesh fabric called BrighTex, which it uses on the sporty, limited-edition GranSport. The new Aston Martin DB9 offers an optional interior package using bamboo. At the other end of the price spectrum, Toyota's Scion tC coupe wraps its instrument panel in a rugged rice-paper finish.
But the most transformative material may be silicon.
THE DIGITAL INTERIOR
Today's automobile is an electronic wonder, with computerized control systems operating everything from the engine to the antilock brakes. More and more of that computing power goes into the passenger compartment. Consider the $350,000 Maybach M62. Its rear cabin seems roomier than the typical New York apartment, with two business-cabin-style seats that allow passengers to recline while watching a DVD on twin LCD monitors. Touch a button, and the panoramic sunroof turns opaque. Another, and it glows like an oversized night-light.
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