To many auto critics, the 2002 North American International Auto Show will be remembered cynically as the year of the silver station wagon, but to at least a few, it will be the year interior design finally turned the corner in Detroit. At least three vehicles, the ''''02 Lincoln Navigator, along with the Chrysler Crossfire and Pacifica concepts (which are promised to be very close to production models), feature interiors that can at least hold a candle to European and Japanese rivals in terms of fit, finish and overall execution.

That may not sound like much, but it means a lot.

For reasons even the industry''''s top designers can''''t explain, General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and DaimlerChrysler AG''''s Chrysler unit have been unable to create new car and truck interiors with the same fit and finish quality as European and Asian competitors.

For years it has been theorized that it was a cost issue, and that Detroit''''s Big Three didn''''t want to spend extra dollars on more expensive interior materials, especially when consumers seemed happy to plunk down $30,000, $40,000 and more for lowbrow pickups and SUVs whose main interior design themes were cheap-looking gray plastic and gray velour.

Until quite recently, many Big Three executives publicly denied there was a problem, arguing that such issues were merely a matter of taste.

Now that some truly competitive interiors appear to be in their product pipelines, some Detroit executives are saying publicly what they''''ve only been saying privately before: the interiors of Volkswagen/Audi cars are the industry benchmark, Big Three interiors don''''t measure up and cost isn''''t the operative factor.

“The only thing (attractive design) costs is perspiration. And if you''''re already sweating out the details, it''''s not that hard, it doesn''''t cost a penny more,” says Ford design chief J Mays, a former designer at VW/Audi.

“I was shocked when I came to the U.S. and saw the interiors,” says Trevor M. Creed, a former Ford of Europe designer who now is senior vice president, design at Chrysler. He doesn''''t offer an explanation as to why traditional American interiors come up short, but he vows that the one''''s he''''s responsible for won''''t. The Pacifica, which will be in dealerships about a year from now, was the turning point for him. “When we started that car, I had an Audi A6 in my design studios and I brought in all the key interior suppliers whether they were on that program or not — and I said this is the level of interior quality I expect in all of our future product,” Creed says. He also told them to buy A6s for their own teardown rooms.

“So, this is the first, Crossfire is the second, you''''ll see it on all future product that our interiors are going to take a tremendous leap forward. And now with our colleagues at Mercedes-Benz and a lot of the suppliers being common and sharing seat frames and electronics and switches, we get the tactile feel and all that kind of stuff as well,” Creed says confidently.

Ford''s Mays is equally optimistic. The new interior of the ''''02 Lincoln Navigator is getting good reviews and the VW-like Ford Mondeo is a big hit in Europe. “We brought up Mondeo almost to VW standards, we didn''''t get there, but we almost got there, it was a hell of an improvement,” he says frankly.

“I think the Germans have probably set the benchmark, but I can tell you we are rapidly catching up. We''''re putting a lot of attention not only into the Navigator but every other vehicle that we produce in this country now. The next F150 (full-size pickup) has an interior so nice you''''d sell your house to live in it. It''''s a hell of an interior,” Mays says.

GM is making progress, too, but has the least to show for its efforts so far. Insiders at Cadillac say the interior execution of the new Cadillac CTS is a disappointment. That likely will change.

During media days at the NAIAS show, GM Vice Chairman Robert Lutz, North American President Gary Cowger and Ford Motor Co. Group Vice President Wolfgang Reitzle were spotted closely inspecting the interior of the newly redesigned ''''02 Navigator. The three were busy going through the various interior features, while Lutz was seen paying close attention to the design of the instrument panel and center console. A Lincoln designer tells Ward''''s that Lutz also spent a significant amount of time studying the Navigator''''s interior at the Los Angeles Auto Show.

Another source says Lutz was spotted with an entourage combing the interior of the Pacifica. “He was lecturing Cowger and all those guys on what a wonderful quality interior it was,” says the source. “This is what I''''ve been talking about,” he reportedly told Cowger.