Your mother always told you it's what's inside that counts. After giving interiors short shrift for two or three decades, Detroit's Big 3 auto makers have come to the same conclusion. It's going to start becoming apparent as new '03 and '04 cars and trucks start rolling out next year, and new concept vehicles debut at major auto shows. U.S. interior design is entering a new, more opulent era.
FromGroup's Pacifica crossover utility vehicle (CUV) and Crossfire coupe to Motor Co.'s next-generation F-150 fullsize pickup, consumers will see a new attention to fit, finish, texture and overall detail that has typically been lacking in Detroit's new products. At least that's what Detroit's design chiefs are promising.
Corp. has been trailing and in this area, but now is making up for lost time behind the scenes with prodding from Robert Lutz, GM's vice chairman and product chief. He's been spotted at numerous auto shows going through competitor vehicles with teams of top executives and designers.
For the first time, Detroit auto makers are looking over their interiors with a magnifying glass, paying attention to details and creating a level of craftsmanship that just hasn't been there before: the lines of the instrument panel will match up and flow more evenly into door trim panels, without big and uneven gaps. Plastic surfaces will look smoother, more organic and have lower gloss levels. Surface grains and textures will be finer, more clearly defined, and matched better with adjacent interior surfaces.
Nappy headliners made from coarse synthetic fibers are being replaced with more natural-looking cloth fabrics with finer weaves. And the cheesy-looking buttons and switches we all love to hate? They're going to be history, too, along with those awful unfinished areas: gaping holes or spaces covered over with carpet or awkward-looking plastic caps.
The improvements won't be limited to luxury vehicles, either.
“People expect quality whether it is a Neon, PT Cruiser or a top-of-the-line vehicle,” says Trevor Creed, the Chrysler Group's senior vice president of design. "It might have a different style. We want to give them no less quality regardless.”
Mike Arbaugh, chief designer of the '03 Lincoln Navigator, agrees, and promises the Ford F-150 fullsize pickup, due out next year, will have an interior that will set a new standard.
Most observers agree the trend was ushered in earlier this year by the lavishly appointed Lincoln Navigator. With a sticker that soars over $60,000, it is a new benchmark for luxury in SUVs, not only for its finely grained leather and plastic and metal trim parts featuring soft satin-nickel finishes, but also for its innovative use of interior lighting. Over 120 LEDs (light emitting diodes) illuminate the interior, providing a stunning effect at night.
Ford invented the large luxury SUV segment with the Navigator in 1997. With no competition, it was easy for designers back then to just tweak the interior of the less expensive Expedition, which in turn was derived from Ford's humble F-150 pickup truck, says Arbaugh.
But when the segment became intensely competitive, with GM offering three products alone (Escalade, Escalade ESV and Hummer H2) in addition to the Lexus LX470, Range Rover and Mercedes G-Wagon models, Arbaugh says everyone knew Lincoln had to create something special and uniquely American for the '03 Navigator's first major redesign.
So instead of simply adding more wood and nicer instrument clusters to a typical truck interior, Lincoln created a unique environment that uses lots of cues from its classic '61 Lincoln, a design with strong emotional appeal to Navigator's core Baby Boomer market. The look is further enhanced by the lighting and an elegant analog clock mounted in the center stack, which will become a feature in all Lincoln vehicles. The clock face is finished in satin nickel with touches of chrome to mark the hours. At night, it is illuminated indirectly by white light emanating from the chrome trim ring.
“White lighting looks clean and modern,” says Arbaugh. “It's a perfect compliment to the soft luster of the satin nickel surface treatments.”
Ford spent lavishly on the new Navigator interior to set it apart from the pack and from its less-expensive sibling, the Ford Expedition, ultimately forcing it to significantly raise the base price. That's usually not an option for most new products. But designers say making interiors world class isn't just about spending more money.
AG, and its Audi luxury division, has been the global benchmark, not only for the way it executes its exquisite interiors, but also for the way it achieves them. After tearing apart and analyzing dozens of its models, U.S. auto makers and suppliers have learned that one of the reasons VW interiors are so nice is that the auto maker created optimum designs for many key components and then standardized them across many different platforms. The higher volumes translate into lower costs for each individual door panel or switch.
“You hone in on the perfect switch so it has just the right amount of pressure to open and close the window in terms of the feel, and you say ‘Here's our style, we want to duplicate that feel. And by the way, we're going to use it for the next five years on all of our product,’” says Creed. “That's a very attractive buy (for a supplier) and you get that at a very good price,” he says. “Whether it's a Phaeton or a Golf, it's the same switch. You pick the right design and just proliferate it,” Creed says.
Historically, Chrysler has had as many as 32 different types of window switches across its product lineup, Creed says.
In the past, Detroit-based auto makers have not been good at sharing parts across various vehicles and platforms,” says Michael Wall, a senior analyst at IRN, Inc., a Detroit-based automotive consulting company. “Because of the way the business groups are set up, they don't communicate across platforms so well,” he says. In some cases, Detroit auto makers couldn't even agree to share such mundane components as hood latches, he says.
However, Wall says DaimlerChrysler AG in particular has made progress recently in efforts to share parts across product lines.
Even so, rising Big 3 incentive costs cause some skeptics to wonder how fast the auto makers will be able to upgrade their interiors. James Gillette, a vice president at IRN, points out that Detroit remains in a classic chicken-and-egg scenario. Auto makers such asand Motor Co. Ltd. are able to invest more money in their cars and trucks because they are in demand and usually can be sold with few incentives. Detroit's Big 3 are far more dependent on incentives, increasing cost pressures and making it harder to upgrade their products to compete.
Spending more money isn't an automatic requirement for developing world-class interiors, the IRN consultants say, but it helps to have that option available.