DETROIT – Well-executed auto interiors are just the ticket for entry in today’s competitive sales market, as more consumers than ever demand customized cabins to make a vehicle feel uniquely theirs.

And it’s not just Baby Boomers that are driving this trend. It also is the so-called Echo Boomers generation, those car buyers just coming into driving age, that are demanding unique rides, says a panel of experts at the 2007 Ward’s Auto Interiors Show here.

However, the two demographics are seeking entirely different things, says Erich Merkle, director-forecasting, at IRN Inc.

“As (Baby) Boomers age, re-configurable interiors and comfort are more important,” he says. “With Echoes, think color for personalization – pinks, icy greens and blues and even flames. I see all of these coming in cars. It runs the gamut; nothing is prohibited.”

Recognizing the needs of car buyers is important for the success of auto makers today, Merkle says, although the more lucrative customer, by far, is the Baby Boomer.

“Luxury is one of the fastest-growing segments, because (Baby Boomers) are at their peak income and spending years,” he says. “The next decade, we’re going to see small cars back in vogue because that’s what Echo Boomers can afford. How do you make money on minicars?

“You have to make money off the (Baby) Boomers. Auto makers have to realize the auto industry is market driven, not manufacturer driven,” he adds.

One of the best opportunities for auto makers and suppliers to customize vehicle interiors at a low cost is through the use of lights, panel experts agree. Many auto makers, such as Ford Motor Co. with its Mustang, already are using lighting to personalize the passenger cabin.

This trend is apparent in many concept cars, as well, including the Mazda Ryuga shown at this year’s North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

“(The) Ryuga (uses) lighting materials to provide a clean canvas to the individual who has the vehicle,” says Teresa Spafford, color and trim lead designer, Mazda North American Operations. “When you turn (the lights) on, the character of the person comes out.”

Two other Mazda concepts – the Kabura and Nagare – explore other mediums. The Kabura features four seats with no two alike, ignoring the rules of symmetry designers generally follow. The Nagare places the driver front and center, with “everyone else left behind,” Spafford says.

Although the Mazda concepts have been well received by show goers, it will take more than rave reviews to make such concepts a reality.

“There are a lot of really good designs in show cars, and they’re not making it into production,” Spafford says, citing a disconnect between designers and executives who make the business decisions.

“My hope is in the future we’ll be more collaborative,” she adds.

Toyota Motor Corp. is a forerunner in personalized interiors with its youth-oriented Scion brand, which offers a plethora of options and accessories at dealerships.

Alan Schneider, project chief designer at Calty Design Research Inc., a subsidiary of Toyota, points to the Scion Fuse concept as an indication of the direction the auto maker is going in terms of personalized interiors.

The Fuse was designed to combine a sporty coupe with the lifestyle of its owner, he says. For example, it provides a selectable meter display with which the driver can choose from three different gauge configurations.

The concept also features an icon-controlled instrument panel, providing intuitive control much like Apple’s iPod MP3 player. Additionally, there are selectable interior and exterior lights, along with interchangeable interior elements such as a removable console box cooler.

“(The) Fuse was designed to represent the next step,” Schneider says. “Concepts with multi-modes are taking us in new directions.”

One concept that continues to garner media attention is the Chevrolet Volt, also shown at this year’s Detroit auto show. While the Volt likely is known best for its revolutionary E-Flex electric drive propulsion system, its interior features a number of ways to individualize the passenger compartment.

“We wanted (the Volt) to be less of an appliance and create more of an emotional connection (with consumers),” says Therese Tant, Volt lead designer for General Motors Corp. “We wanted seamless connectivity, with a simple interface and maximum flexibility.”

The Volt incorporates adaptable lighting and ultra-violet light -projected displays that are projected over the vehicle’s instrumentation. The re-configurable displays relay information on the status of the intricate E-Flex system and can provide a driver with his e-mail status, traffic patterns and personal reminders.

bpope@wardsauto.com