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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 3)

In typical fashion, much of this technology is migrating down to more mainstream products. DVD players are quickly becoming the norm in minivans, as well as high-end luxury sedans. Navigation systems have become almost ubiquitous in Japan and Europe, though they're a bit slower to catch on in the United States. There's a good chance you have a better sound system in your car than you do in your home. But finding a place to mount that seven-inch monitor, that six-CD changer and those 14 speakers can challenge even the most innovative engineer.

BMW chairman Helmut Panke was tired of seeing all those "angry fireflies," the endless buttons and LED indicators that were turning the instrument panel of cars like his 7 Series into complicated control racks. So BMW has adopted an alternate approach, the iDrive system. It consolidates most switches and buttons into a single mouse-like control mounted on the center armrest. It can operate anything from the air conditioning to the audio system.

The iDrive can be challenging to learn, especially for those not already computer savvy, but Panke insists it was a necessary step. It's a major challenge, "trying to guess what consumer tastes might be like several years from now." But despite the frequent criticism of iDrive, a growing number of competitors, such as Audi and Infiniti, are adopting consolidated control systems of their own. In one form or another, the concept is likely to be the norm, rather than the exception, in tomorrow's high-tech automobile.

GM isn't the only automaker increasing the budget for its interiors. Ford added nearly $1,000 in cost for the top-line version of its F-150 pickup. Chrysler intends to boost spending as well. It's no easy task, though, getting the corporate bean counters to go along. "We'll arm wrestle over a nickel," says Chrysler's Joe Dehner with a laugh. And budgets are even tighter now, in an era of big incentives.

But that's precisely why manufacturers need to make the investment, argues Ford's Schiavone. "We're putting $2,400 on the hood, but give me $400 to make a better interior...and beat the competition, and you won't need to spend the rest of the money."

Good interiors don't always cost more money. Ford actually saved about $75 on the well-reviewed passenger compartment of the new Mustang. Good-looking plastics often don't cost any more than the junk. Careful integration of components can also save money that a manufacturer can divert to better materials, like leather, wood or brushed aluminum.

"Interiors have become the leading edge in the way a manufacturer meet the needs and desires of consumers," asserts Brett Smith, an analyst with the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Manufacturers that already know that have a head start. v

Paul A. Eisenstein publishes on the Web.

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