DETROIT – Imagine cleaning the interior of a car and instead of vacuuming the floor, vacuuming the instrument panel. And on the floor, instead of carpeting, finding rubber or plastic, easily cleaned with nothing more than a standard garden hose. If some auto interior specialists have their way, this off-the-wall scenario may be a reality.

Carpeting on the instrument panel and rubber or plastic flooring are just two design concepts kicked around by panelists at the recent 2002 Auto Interiors show here. On the quirky side are plastic seats and color-changing or phosphorescent (glow-in-the dark) interior trim details.

"Fabric on the IP is more of a niche item," says Katherine Sirvio, lead designer for General Motors Corp.’s GM Design, Color and Trim Studio. "It’s not something you’ll see every Chevrolet come out with."

Good interior styling no longer will be the domain of high-priced luxury makes, predicts Ralph Gilles, director-Studio 3 at DaimlerChrysler Corp., who points to BMW AG’s new Mini Cooper as proof vehicles don’t have to be expensive to have well-styled interiors.

BMW Mini Cooper interior

"The Mini has lots of character and looks more expensive than it is," say Gilles. "Looking at the new M80 (Dodge concept pickup truck), I’m thinking happy days are back again. There’s a ’50s fun factor with a little bit of juvenility. Vehicles are on the brink of becoming a commodity and we need to bring fun back."

Suppliers are becoming increasingly involved in the development of vehicle interiors (witness GM’s hiring of suppliers as "interior integrators"), but not all OEM designers appear threatened by that. Magna International Inc.’s Intier Automotive, for instance, played a key role in developing the Mini interior.

"It’s best when you’re working with a supplier that has its own design department with expertise," says Jim Smithbauer, design manager for truck interiors at Ford Motor Co. "It’s not infringing, and it makes design easier if you have somebody who’s an expert in their field."

Honda Motor Co. Ltd., however, likes to hold the cards when it comes to its vehicle interiors. "Maybe we’re more control freaks," says Michael Tsay, manager, auto interior design and a principal designer, Honda R&D Americas. "An interior’s image and the way it goes together is key to what Honda is. Suppliers provide ideas."

Dow Automotive President Larry Denton says a vertical structure, with all suppliers (Tier 2s and 3s included) working together with an OEM is best to ensure good, quality interiors. He proposes a "peers, not tiers" relationship, with increased spending on research and development to drive innovation.

"Large suppliers and OEMs don’t take risks," says Denton. "We’ve forced Tier 1 suppliers to work with blinders on and forced Tier 2s and 3s to as well. The structure is too narrow at the top. It’s archaic and it’s time to change. We can’t tell North American interiors from one another," he says.

Speaking from an OEM perspective, GM’s Sirvio says she often is frustrated by the end result of such collaboration.

"From our standpoint, our issue is getting the same quality from the beginning to the end," she says. "The first time we see something from a supplier is great, but the product in production is a wreck. We need to tighten up those materials and check them."

One of the materials under scrutiny is plastic.

"I cringe every time (GM North America Vice Chairman) Bob Lutz says, ‘That vehicle has too much plastic; it looks too plastic,’" says Bruce Cundiff of the American Plastics Council’s (APC) Automotive Learning Center.

No material was more hotly debated here than plastics, which is trying to overcome a negative image that Sirvio likens to polyester clothing’s status years ago.

"But now people don’t know about polyester’s bad rep," she says.

Laurie Busch, designer for Mastin Associates, affiliated with auto textile manufacturer Chatham Borgstena Inc., agrees.

"The younger generation has a more positive experience with plastics," says Busch, who says smell and fogging have been plastics primary problems in the past.

Others contend plastics’ bad reputation is due in part to poor fit and finish, not the material, itself.

And interior plastics potentially could benefit from use of more color to jazz up the standard gray, beige and black common in vehicles today, contends Lorene Boettcher, international styling coordinator for The Seton Co., a producer of leather for interiors.

"We did a survey with Lear (Corp.) years ago and men wanted more color and texture, but women were more conservative, wanting the standard interior colors," she says.

Sirvio says Americans’ desire to take everything down to the lowest common denominator is preventing U.S. auto makers from taking chances on new materials and innovative interior styling. The wildly-styled Pontiac Aztek, which so far has failed to catch on with buyers, is a case in point.

"The Aztek was daring and different. We had every opportunity to do something different, but we (Americans) don’t want to read an owners manual," says Sirvio, referring to controversy sparked by the addition of a cleaning care tag for some of the materials in Ford’s F-150 pickup truck.

Yet, Sirvio aims to leave no stone unturned when it comes to designing a vehicle’s interior. She points to the stylish and professionally-designed line of home products available at discount retailer Target as proof that even an unremarkable, everyday item such as a plastic toilet brush can be eye-catching.

"I heard (famed designer and architect) Philippe Starck was going to be designing toilet brushes for Target. That’s what we’re doing, looking at every nook and cranny," she says of the attention to detail given to such a common item.

If there is one thing interior specialists seem to agree on, it’s that vehicle interiors on models by GM, Ford and the Chrysler Group rarely stand up against their Japanese and European competition. Volkswagen and Audi brands are cited repeatedly as benchmarks for vehicle interior quality and style.

"Consumers vote every time they walk into a dealership, and it’s pretty clear they’re not voting for us," says Denton. "Look at any parking lot and you’ll see all U.S. trucks and no U.S. cars. Does anybody really believe interiors on European cars don’t look better?"

Although Japanese and European models – including the Infiniti G35, Acura MDX, Toyota Highlander and Mini Cooper – are cited by panelists as having some of the best interiors, two U.S. makes – Ford Thunderbird and Chevrolet Avalanche – took top honors for interiors during the show, sponsored by Auto Interiors magazine.

Sirvio thinks GM’s new-found commitment to vehicle design – both interior and exterior – is good, but wonders if change can infiltrate the auto maker’s corporate structure.

"Bob Lutz and the new organization have brought a resurgence of design," she says. "I hope it lasts and doesn’t get bogged down in too many meetings and too much politics."

Near-term, consumers can expect more technology, such as telematics, to be squeezed into vehicle interiors, some designers predict.

"It’s totally against what driving should be about, but pressure (to include those devices) won’t go away," Gilles says.

Other insiders expect consumers to rebel against the glut of in-vehicle technology by demanding less-cluttered interiors.

"At Honda we see simplicity and calmness as a trend," says Honda’s Tsay. "How to add features, how you present them to the customer, will be a challenge."