Three economy cars, three luxury brands, a sport sedan, minivan, upscale off-road SUV and family sedan round out this year’s Ward’s 10 Best Interiors list. Throughout February and March, Ward’s editors drove 51 vehicles that were all-new or featured significantly upgraded interiors in determining the 2011 winners. They are:

  • Audi A8
  • BMW X3 xDrive35i
  • Chevy Cruze 2LT RS
  • Dodge Charger Rallye Plus
  • Ford Focus Titanium
  • Honda Odyssey Elite
  • Hyundai Elantra Limited
  • Jeep Grand Cherokee Overland Summit
  • Kia Optima EX
  • olvo S60

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“We’ve never evaluated so many vehicles for any awards competition in the past, which tells us every auto maker wants the freshest, highest-quality interior possible for all the vehicles they sell,” Ward’s AutoWorld Editor-in-Chief Drew Winter says.

“Auto makers are so focused on the smallest details that it’s hard to find a bad interior these days. Still, some are better than others, and we’re recognizing the best of the best.”

This year’s list represents a broad cross section of the industry, from utility vehicles and minivans to small cars and high-end premium sedans.

The A8 dazzles Ward’s editors with gorgeous features such as high-gloss wood on seat backs and suede inserts on the dramatically styled door panels. The gear shifter in the center console also serves as a “clever lever” for resting the heel of the right hand while working the Multimedia Interface central controller.

Priced at $93,525, the A8 further cements Audi’s status as the design leader for luxury-car interiors.

The X3 xDrive35i successfully blends a black-and-cream color scheme with tastefully executed wood trim on the dashboard, center console and door panels.

Superb fit-and-finish, fold-flat seating and ample space for five occupants make the $52,025 X3 a worthy contender in the luxury cross/utility vehicle segment.

And the iDrive controller also has become easier to use and more intuitive, now allowing drivers simple access to the entire owner’s manual, all visible on the central display.

The Cruze illustrates clearly how the growing market for economy cars has convinced auto makers that cutting corners in the passenger compartment no longer works.

Soft-touch surfaces, high-grade plastics, properly bolstered leather-appointed seats and great attention to noise reduction make the Cruze a wonderful value at $22,910.

Ward’s editors saw red, in a good way, after driving the redesigned Charger Rallye Plus, equipped with blazing red seats, door panels and center armrest.

But in any interior color, the $34,635 Charger would look stunning, with its 1-piece matte-finish metallic trim and sporty gauges lending an eye-catching flourish to the dashboard.

Chrysler has made tremendous strides in overhauling its interiors throughout the lineup. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Charger.

If any vehicle can make hatchbacks cool again, the Focus Titanium surely is up to the task. With an engaging combination of deep-gray and cranberry-red on the leather seats, doors and center console, this $27,520 5-door is fully loaded with navigation system and moonroof to compete with sporty offerings in the larger midsize segment. The car even parks itself.

Minivans don’t get nearly enough respect, but the Honda Odyssey Touring Elite deserves all the accolades we can cram into its generous cargo compartment and 10 cupholders.

Perfectly suited to cast an air of calm over any road trip with multiple children under the age of 6, the $44,030 Odyssey impresses with premium features such as 2-tier storage bins in the front doors, a “cool box” refrigerator below the center stack and a third row that is comfortable for adults and easily accessible.

More evidence that economy cars “ain’t what they used to be,” the Hyundai Elantra Limited delivers enough flair to suggest the South Korean auto maker is finding its own unique interior design language.

The instrument panel of this $22,110 5-passenger sedan displays a curvaceous sensuality, with a belt drawn tightly around the climate controls; the center console then widens as it flows down to the gear shifter.

With shock and awe, the all-new Grand Cherokee Overland Summit carries on the tradition as a halo for the Jeep brand.

The boldly stitched deep-grain tan leather seats instantly conjure images of a highly crafted saddle from the wild west. The rich material carries over seamlessly to the instrument panel and door trim, making this $48,770 V-8-powered SUV the ultimate comfort-mobile for the Rubicon Trail.

Kia showed its funkiness a few years ago with the now-popular Soul small car. With the new Optima, the auto maker demonstrates its serious side and an uncanny ability to connect with midsize buyers in the U.S.

Finely finished with perforated leather seats, a panoramic sunroof, navigation, premium audio and heated and cooled front seats, the Optima is an impressive package for $27,440. Another reason to like the Optima interior is its resemblance to the prior-generation Audi A6.

Last only in alphabetical order, the Volvo S60 is a study in Scandinavian serenity. From the beautifully angular door panels to the floating center stack, the $46,200 S60 is an undiscovered gem in the heart of the luxury market.

Among the S60’s best features are the sleek head restraints for front-seat occupants, which stand out in a world of intrusive head restraints up-sized to meet new federal crash standards. Leave it to Volvo to make a safety device sexy.

The Ward’s 10 Best Interiors competition takes the place of the Interior of the Year program that dates back well before 2005, when Ward’s acquired the Auto Interiors Conference.

The 2011 interior winners will be honored in a special ceremony at this year’s conference May 17 at The Henry hotel in Dearborn, MI.

Ward’s editors picked the winning interiors using the same methodology employed for the annual Ward’s 10 Best Engines program.

Scoresheets are completed for each vehicle driven based on materials, ergonomics, safety, the human-machine interface, comfort, fit-and-finish, overall value and aesthetics. Extensive discussions followed that.

A comprehensive package profiling the winners will appear April 20 on WardsAuto.com and in the May issue of Ward’s AutoWorld magazine.

tmurphy@wardsauto.com