With a record 51 vehicles in the hunt for the 2011 Ward’s 10 Best Interiors competition, making the cut will be tougher than ever.

This year’s entries are the best Ward’s editors have seen, particularly in the small-car category with stand-out interiors for several all-new vehicles, including the Chevy Cruze, Fiat 500, Ford Fiesta, Ford Focus and Hyundai Elantra.

Compact-car interiors for years have suffered the indignities of low-cost materials and compromised comfort, but auto makers today have gotten the message that customers for these vehicles no longer will settle for less.

So don’t be surprised if one or two find their way onto this year’s Ward’s 10 Best Interiors list when the winners are announced next month.

Yes, we have changed the name of the competition from Interior of the Year, which had been in place well before 2005, when Ward’s acquired the Auto Interiors Conference.

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

Since 2007, Ward’s editors have been picking the best interiors by applying the same formula that drives our well-regarded Ward’s 10 Best Engines competition.

That requires a scoresheet for each vehicle evaluated and points awarded (or subtracted) based on materials, ergonomics, safety, the human-machine interface, comfort, fit-and-finish, overall value and aesthetics.

Along with changing the competition name, we are eliminating vehicle categories that limited our options in picking the winners. In the past, we had, for instance, a category for luxury cars, and only one could win, even though there may have been others that were deserving.

In addition, although most segments had price caps in the past, the new format does away with them.

Ward’s editors have been evaluating the vehicles throughout February and March. Production vehicles qualify for the competition by virtue of being all-new or having significantly upgraded interiors.

Several trends are emerging in this year’s competition.

For instance, auto makers are paying more attention to the look and feel of buttons and switches, even using them as stylistic elements on dashboards. HMIs are becoming more intuitive and easier to use. That, or we’re just getting better at figuring them out.

And practically every auto maker is using the now-ubiquitous liquid-crystal display screen for brand promotion during that crucial moment when the driver starts the engine.

Beautifully simplistic logos – whether it’s for BMW, Cadillac, Audi, Nissan, Honda, Jaguar or Ford – appear on the screen first and foremost, like a personalized billboard serving to remind the driver of the importance of brand loyalty.

The keynote speaker at this year’s Ward’s Auto Interiors Conference is Ralph Gilles, president and CEO of Chrysler’s Dodge car brand.

And for the second year in a row, Ward’s and its sponsors will recognize interior-design concepts created especially for the conference by students from Detroit’s College for Creative Studies.

tmurphy@wardsauto.com

2011 10 Best Interiors Nominees

  • 3
  • Acura TSX wagon
  • Acura TL
  • Chrysler Town & Country
  • Dodge Charger
  • Dodge Durango
  • Dodge Journey
  • Fiat 500
  • Ford Edge
  • Ford Explorer
  • Ford F-Series Super Duty
  • Ford Fiesta
  • Ford Focus
  • Audi A8
  • Ford Mustang GT
  • GMC Acadia Denali
  • Honda CR-Z
  • Honda Odyssey
  • Hyundai Elantra
  • Hyundai Equus
  • Infiniti QX56
  • Jaguar XJ
  • Jeep Grand Cherokee
  • Jeep Wrangler
  • BMW X3
  • Kia Optima
  • Kia Sportage
  • Lexus CT 200h
  • Lincoln MKX
  • Mazda2
  • Mazda5
  • Mini Countryman
  • Mitsubishi Outlander Sport
  • Nissan Juke
  • Nissan Leaf
  • Cadillac CTS-V wagon
  • Nissan Murano CrossCabriolet
  • Nissan Quest
  • Porsche Cayenne Turbo
  • Ram Laramie Longhorn
  • Saab 9-5 Aero
  • Scion tC
  • Subaru Forester
  • Toyota Avalon
  • W Jetta
  • VW Touareg Hybrid
  • Chevy Cruze
  • Volvo S60
  • Chevy Silverado HD
  • Chevy Volt
  • Chrysler 200
  • Chrysler 300