For years automakers and designers have given lip service to the idea that how a vehicle looked inside was just as important as the exterior. But deep down, everybody knew it was beautiful sheetmetal that lured buyers into showrooms and fattened the bottom line. The interior only got singled out when the car wasn't selling well. Then the seating fabric would be blamed, or the design of the instrument panel.

But during the past 10 years, changing buyer trends and the startling popularity of supremely practical minivans, pickups and sport/utility vehicles (SUVs) has led to a new era where many consumers are more concerned with the number of cup holders than the number of cylinders in the engine. Today, most new vehicles are designed "from the inside out" and interior design isn't playing second fiddle to anything.

It's not a tough trend to figure out. With consumers and their families spending more time than ever in their vehicles commuting, running errands and taking long driving vacations, they have become much more sensitive to the interior. They care more about conveniences, good ergonomics and feeling pampered than they do about slippery, wind-cheating designs, drag coefficients, or even head-turning good looks.

"There still are cars you design from the outside in. The Plymouth Prowler was conceived as a fabulous shape. It has a high belt line and a high cowl, and you don't worry about some practicalities," says Trevor Creed, Chrysler Corp.'s director of Interior and Jeep/Truck design.

"But interior design drives minivan, truck, sport/utility and Jeep. That cabin environment is what you are selling.""Exterior style helps people discove r a car in the first place, but they don't spend a lot of time in the showroom examining the exterior. They do spend a lot of time inside," adds Jeff Hands, executive director, Transportation Design at Designworks/USA Inc., BMW's U.S. design subsidiary.

Because of this, automakers - and suppliers - are starting to lavish an unprecedented amount of attention on interiors in an effort to boost sales and enhance brand identity. Although the trend started slowly with the burgeoning popularity of light trucks, the emphasis on interiors now can be seen everywhere, from the way automaker design studios are laid out to today's latest concept cars, where there is an attention to finely crafted interior details that hasn't been evident since classic models of the 1930s.

Until recently, interior and exterior design used to be very separate career paths, and often there was little communication among interior and exterior designers during the vehicle development process. Today, most automaker studios insist their younger designers get experience in all areas and encourage them to walk through their counterpart's studios on a weekly basis to keep attuned to each other's moves.

"Whether you look at the package, the platform, interior or the exterior of a vehicle, they all have to send exactly the same visual message to that particular market. If you're selling trucks, and durability is one of your attributes, then the interior has to reflect that as much as the exterior," says J.C. Mays, Ford Motor Co.'s new vice president of design.

He expects Ford designers to be able to deal with both interiors and exteriors in a consistent design "language" for the given market they are trying to hit.

"For people who have been in the business for 20 years plus, (interior design) is a career path," says Chrysler's Mr. Creed. "But for new designers we don't discriminate. If a new designer has an interiors portfolio, well and good. We've had guys from CCS (Detroit's Center for Creative Studies design school) who want to be interior. But for the first five years we have a plan where we rotate them through all studios," Mr. Creed says. "By then we've got a good feeling about where their strengths and weaknesses are."

This new attention to interiors has resulted in an explosion of interesting features and trends and is forcing automakers to stretch their collective imaginations in search of new ideas.

On the whimsical side are the GM vehicles created last year by five noted fashion designers for "Concept: Cure" a fund-raising partnership between General Motors Corp. and the fashion industry to raise money for breast cancer research.

The collaboration brought five fashion designers, Mark Eisen, Nicole Miller, Todd Oldham, Anna Sui and Richard Tyler, together with members of the GM design studios and vehicle brand teams to create one-of-a-kind GM vehicles that could then be auctioned off.

"These fashion designers used color, texture and material in ways we never dreamed possible with our products," says Richard Ruzzin, director of brand character for Chevrolet passenger vehicles, when the cars and trucks were shown off last January. "And we asked ourselves, 'Why can't we do those things?' It opened up a whole arena of opportunities for us."

For example, elements of Mr. Miller's Cadillac STS interior, using a braided leather steering wheel cover and black onyx trim, may appear in future products, Mr. Ruzzin says.

The type of graphics used on Ms. Sui's GMC Yukon could inspire future GM vehicles, too, Mr. Ruzzin says. "Are we going to have leopard skin carpeting on our vehicles? Probably not, but patent leather accents are a possibility," Mr. Ruzzin says.

On the more pragmatic side, interior suppliers such as Johnson Controls Inc. and Lear Corp. are experimenting with new interior designs on their own, and funding projects at the nation's top design schools.

One of the latest projects is JCI's "Symbiosis" concept interior shown at the Frankfurt Motor Show. It was created to demonstrate the company could design innovative, attractive interiors, as well as just manufacture individual parts.

Why all this new effort on style as well as functionality? Chrysler's Mr. Creed says most all automakers now have the basic ingredients of good interior design pretty much down pat: ergonomics, safety, functionality and convenience items such as cup holders. The next step is imparting a feeling of customization and craftsmanship to the interior, and communicating a distinctive "brand character" that stirs the emotions of potential car buyers as much as swoopy sheet-metal.

Indeed, "craftsmanship" seems to be the newest interior buzzword. Chrysler's Mr. Creed talks about restoring more sculpture to interior surfaces and evoking the same emotions and admiration people express for details on classic antique cars.

And they are easy to find in concept cars such as Chrysler's Atlantic and Ford's Mercury MC4, which feature finely detailed, nautical-style gauges and fine bits of brushed and chromed metal scattered throughout the interior like jewelry.

The details are interesting enough to make you forget the cars look pretty nice from the outside, too.

When automakers talk about bringing products to market faster, improving brand identity and commonizing components, seating fabrics aren't the first items that come to mind. Yet interior fabrics play a crucial role in the way potential buyers perceive a product, and poorly chosen fabrics and patterns historically have hurt sales of otherwise promising new vehicles.

Unfortunately, with conventional technology, if an automaker chooses a design or pattern that turns off consumers, it can take 12 to 18 months to make a switch.

Southfield, MI-based Guilford Automotive plans to change that. It's introducing to the North American market a new fabric-printing technology popular in Japan that enables automakers to change designs in 90 days. By printing patterns directly on the material, rather than incorporating dyed yarns that have to be produced separately, automakers can achieve myriad colors and designs with the same base fabric, greatly simplifying production, inventory control and the product specification process, Guilford says.

The technology first was introduced to North America on the 1996 Ford Taurus GL and now is winning wide acceptance. Guilford Automotive President Chris Richard projects 1,000% growth for printed automotive seat fabrics in North America during the next decade. "We expect to see this process used on 30% of the fabrics Guilford manufactures for the transplants and up to 60% usage is projected for cars and trucks produced by domestic automak-ers," Mr. Richard says.

Guilford is using the "Printek" technology through an agreement with Hakusan Senko Co. Ltd., a Japanese fabric supplier. It has been used in Japan for close to a decade by Toyota, Honda and Nissan, and currently accounts for more than 40% of all seat fabrics in Japan.

Fabric printing hasn't caught on sooner in North Amer-ica because U.S. automakers have had concerns about fade-resistance and durability of printed fabrics in general, but Mr. Richard says those worries now have been laid to rest.