DETROIT – Fitting five passengers in a compact plug-in hybrid-electric vehicle, such as the upcoming Chevrolet Volt and Fisker Karma, has been problematic for designers.

The necessary Lithium-ion batteries occupy the tunnel that runs along the floor of the vehicle, from the footwell to the back seat, barring a center seating placement in the second row.

Johnson Controls Inc. has a solution on display at this week’s North American International Auto Show here.

The interior and battery specialist today unveils its “re3” concept, based on the subcompact Fiat 500, which launched a year ago. For the production 500, JCI supplies the seats and door panels. The name represents JCI’s efforts to rethink small-car packaging, renew interior capability and respond to consumer demands.

The re3 series-hybrid concept cleverly packages the 96 Li-ion cells in the space of the center console, from the footwell to the back of the front seats, freeing up the second-row floor space and allowing for a lower, more comfortable seating position in back.

“We knew that you can’t come out with a vehicle with only 4-passenger seating and hit very high volume,” Michael Warsaw, vice president, design & marketing for JCI’s North American automotive unit, tells Ward’s.

The 96 cells have a capacity of 22 amp hours and can provide enough energy so that most commutes can be completed solely on electricity, without the gasoline engine ever running.

Nickel-metal-hydride batteries in most HEVs currently in production are placed in the floor of the trunk or rear cargo space.

But Warsaw says a key goal of the re3 program was to keep the Li-ion batteries out of the rear of the vehicle, away from “impact” zones.

“We want to keep them low in the vehicle for a good center of gravity,” he says. “When you take those considerations into place, plus 5-passenger capability, (the center console) is where we think it should be.”

Consumers accustomed to stashing MP3 players, CDs, coins and notepads in their center consoles would have to find a new storage spot for their belongings, and JCI has a solution for that issue, as well.

With advanced electronics and repositioning of audio and climate controls, JCI has managed to dramatically shrink the space necessary for display screens and instrumentation on the dashboard, freeing up about two-thirds of the dashboard for massive storage bins.

A conventionally sized woman’s purse fits handily in one of the bins, covered by a door like a standard glovebox.

Another innovation in the re3 concept is “conversation seating,” which enables the front passenger seat to slide rearward almost 2 ft. (61 cm), allowing a parent easier access for feeding an infant in a car seat positioned in the second row, behind the driver.

“There’s no (traditional) first-row, second-row barrier,” Warsaw says. “Everyone can see each other, can interact; and you can tend to the baby in a safe and convenient way.

“There are more times when you have three people in the car than four or five,” he adds. “We wanted to make sure in most of those instances, when there are three people, that it feels like a bigger vehicle.”

Jeff Williams, JCI automotive group vice president and general manager, tells Ward’s the unique seating configuration should be ready to launch in ’12 model year vehicles.

“It must be finalized and adopted and homologated to a platform at the customer side,” says Beda Bolzenius, JCI automotive president. “But I think 80%-90% of (the concept) is ready for production.”

Likewise, Bolzenius says JCI expects the same ’12 production timeframe for the innovative human-machine interface, which places many comfort and convenience controls on a “seat-wing” keypad placed in the center console, above the battery packs.

Those controls integrate with two reconfigurable displays on the dashboard – a 7-in. (18-cm) display in the center stack and a 4.3-in. (11-cm) screen in front of the driver.

Reorganizing the information shown (such as messaging, navigation and vehicle diagnostics) is accomplished by a simple “touch and flick” operation.

If the driver wants a key bit of information from the larger screen to the right to be directly in front of him on the smaller display, he can touch the item on the center display and “flick” it leftward. The information magically appears in front of the driver.

As the automotive sector struggles with drastic reductions in vehicle sales, Bolzenius says JCI continues carrying out restructuring plans and facility closures announced in September.

The supplier has significant non-automotive business. But, unlike other conglomerates that exited the auto parts business years ago, JCI intends to stay in automotive for the long term.

The company has a record backlog of $4.5 billion in booked business arriving between now and 2011, about 85% of that outside North America, says Bolzenius, noting JCI is expanding its market share in the three major markets of North America, Asia and Europe.

“Our growth in China is still unbelievable,” he says. “We still are targeting more than $2 billion out of the (joint ventures). We are running the business out of 28 to 29 JVs in China, and it’s growing day by day.”

tmurphy@wardsauto.com