DETROIT – Appealing to the high-end automotive consumer used to mean filling a car’s interior with enough leather and wood to resemble an Edwardian sitting room.

Today’s upscale car owners prefer interior amenities of the high-tech kind, from sophisticated navigation systems to rear-seat TVs.

“There is a continuous demand for the introduction of new technologies” from luxury car buyers – and the auto companies that serve them, says Bert Wolfram, vice president-information systems, Siemens VDO Automotive.

On the lookout for the next best thing, auto makers press suppliers for new innovations, because “manufacturers want to set themselves apart from the competition,” says Wolfram during a panel discussion, entitled “Appealing to the High-End Consumer,” at the Ward’s Auto Interior Show here.

An industry challenge is trying to figure out what discriminating buyers want next in their vehicles, says panel moderator George Peterson, president of AutoPacific Inc., a consulting firm.

Wolfram believes one such product is a new-generation night-vision system in which a grille-mounted infrared camera transmits screen images of objects that drivers would not otherwise detect in the dark.

“We’ll see more and more of it,” he says of the safety and collision-avoidance system.

General Motors Corp.’s Cadillac Div. introduced night vision in 2000. It initially was popular, then faded amid waning interest, cost cutting and complaints that the screen images were too crude.

Wolfram anticipates a modern version developed by Siemens VDO will find greater success because the nocturnal images are of higher quality and in color. He touts a new feature that alerts drivers of potential hazards ahead, such as a deer in the road or pedestrians on the shoulder.

In the world of luxury auto interiors, the trick is to figure out what consumers want, give it to them and avoid overloading them with unwanted extras, says panelist Richard Spitzer, global managing partner for Accenture Automotive Practice.

“It is important to dial in to what the customer will pay for,” says Spitzer.

Aging consumers with money drive much of the premium and luxury segment growth, he says. An Accenture survey indicates that group wants safety and security features.

But high-end car buyers also want killer sound and entertainment systems in their vehicles, says panelist Mark Ziemba of Panasonic Automotive Systems of America.

Premium electronic brand names are important, not only to upscale consumers but to auto makers “who believe they can get more for the car and more for the sound system if it has a brand name,” he says.

Having a premium car sound system has much to do with tonal quality. But it also has to do with something less pleasing to the ear: “bragging rights,” says Ziemba.

The trend is towards multi-functional systems with assorted capabilities (such as CD, DVD and MP3), but which are simple to use, he says.

While premium car amenities are becoming more high-tech, high-end consumers don’t want them to be confusing, says panelist Richard Vaughan, a senior designer for interiors at Visteon Corp.

“When they get into a vehicle, consumers want it to be simple, elegant and easy to understand,” says Vaughan. “They want high functionality and ease of use.”

A classic failure of the easy-to-use test was the iDrive system that debuted four years ago on the BMW 7-Series. It’s a central-control system for the sound system, climate settings, navigation functions and more. But critics branded it a complicated contraption designed by German engineers for German engineers.

Yet, after refinements, iDrive today is more highly regarded, and versions of it are in other premium cars, notes panelist Joe DiNucci, senior vice president-automotive for Immersion Corp.

When it debuted, iDrive was revolutionary, says DiNucci. “And revolutionaries get shot in the chest.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com