Special Coverage

Auto Interiors Conference

DEARBORN, MI – The recession took a financial toll on the automotive industry, but from a design perspective it served as inspiration, OEM panelists say at the Ward’s Auto Interiors Conference here.

“It’s been tough over the past few years at (General Motors Co.), but at the design center we managed to stay focused, and I witnessed some of the best work ever,” Crystal Windham, director-North American passenger car design, says during a panel on “Designing Interiors for the Post-Recession Consumer.”

Windham says GM’s pre-recession approach to interior design was “cautious.” But when a new leadership team came on post-bankruptcy, it “embraced designers” and wanted to “elevate interiors.”

She points to the previous-generation Chevrolet Malibu sedan vs. the latest model, which was restyled for the ’08 model year, as evidence of how the focus has shifted toward designing inviting interiors.

“We learned people wanted excitement and style,” she says. In the new Malibu “we wanted to drive emotion, and connect to the customer with shapes, smells, forms, and (create) a lasting impression that draws you into the vehicle.”

Consumers want value for their money, she says of another lesson driven home by the recession. But at the same time, buyers looking to downsize don’t want to sacrifice the amenities they have become accustomed to, especially wealthy customers.

“Rich people who want to appear socially responsible and downsize secretly want the interior features they expect,” she says.

At Jaguar Cars, designers turned their attention to how best to “seduce customers” with the auto maker’s heritage, while still moving its design philosophy forward, says Mark Phillips, interior design manager.

“For a while, we went through a period of losing focus and awareness of what we were all about,” he says. “Now we’re at a state where we’re fully comfortable with the brand and what its possibilities are.

“The recession doesn’t affect what we do greatly, but what it does do is make us work harder.”

Like GM, Jaguar began to alter its way of thinking, which led to the redesigned ’10 XJ flagship sedan.

The new model shares some design cues with the XF sports sedan, especially the grille, but the design is more upscale than its predecessor and will help Jaguar reestablish itself as a brand “about beautiful, fast cars,” Phillips says.

“The XJ was one of the (most) criticized cars in 2000 for being technologically advanced, but not (advanced) in design,” he says in explaining the decision to scrap the XJ’s staid, classic styling.

Jaguar designers also reexamined their approach to interiors, traditionally largely dependent on rich woods and leather, and now strive to offer a variety of options.

Phillips hopes for a day when customers will be able to personalize interiors in much the same way purchasers of ultra-luxury cars do.

“Rolls-Royce offers a service where you go in with a big wallet of money and configure the interior to your own design,” he says. “If we could offer that at a lower price point it would be fantastic.”

Liz Curran, senior designer of color and trim at Hyundai North America, says the auto maker strives to create “balanced” interiors that help consumers manage their hectic lifestyles.

Hyundai achieves this through its official design philosophy, which Curran describes as “fluidic motion.”

“Our design essence is inspired by nature, it creates an emotional and organic styling,” she says, calling Hyundai interior designs “refined, confident and dynamic.”

As for the recession’s impact on Hyundai? “We saw nothing but gains in sales since the recession,” she says. “We want to create value, but keep interiors luxurious.”

bpope@wardsauto.com