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Inside Out

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

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.

"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.

"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.

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.

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.

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.

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.