Grizzled observers of the auto industry have heard the Big Three promising for years that world-class interiors in their cars and trucks are just around the corner.

That message still is out there, delivered most recently by interior design executives from General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. during a panel discussion at the recent Auto Interiors Show in Detroit.

Marek Reichman, Ford's director-interior design strategy, makes a declaration sure to please industry watchers fed up with cheap headliners in their vehicles:

“I can't speak for other auto makers, but at Ford, rat fur is dead,” Reichman says, drawing chuckles from the crowd. “From seats to headliners, it's gone.”

“Rat fur” is the common name given for the gray or beige cottony fabric that has adorned headliners and seats in millions of economy cars and family sedans — and even a few high-priced luxury cars — in recent years. The material looks cheap and does little to foster a vehicle's perceived quality.

“That's not to say neutral shades — such as gray and beige — as well as black are going away,” Reichman says. “Those colors will always have their place. But now we're expanding our palette.”

Likewise, crosstown rival GM is paying closer attention to materials selection as future vehicle interiors are sourced.

Dave Rand, executive director-interior design, quality and brand character, GM North America, says GM expects its interiors to be the best in the industry by the end of the decade, and that a host of new products will demonstrate this new corporate priority. Among them: the '05 Chevrolet Cobalt subcompact, the '05 Chevrolet Corvette and the '06 Pontiac Solstice.

Like discerning consumers, the company is paying close attention to detail, injecting passion and flair where appropriate and working to ensure first-rate fit-and-finish, clean seams and narrow gaps.

For instance, 10 years ago GM was more interested in “design for manufacturability” than it was in pleasing and even surprising vehicle buyers with creative interior effects. “We don't do anything like that now,” Rand tells the crowd.

“Now our standards are world class — we benchmark the best of the best,” he says. “GM has made tremendous strides, but we still have a long way to go.”

On the '05 Buick LaCrosse, the instrument panel has a soft-touch finish, same as the armrests on the upper door panels. Rand also showed sketches of future Cadillac interiors and says they will “help make the brand more performance-oriented.” The emphasis will be on craftsmanship, thinner seating and warmer materials.

The focus on interiors extends beyond style, emotion and functionality. Whenever possible, OEMs are choosing the best material based on environmental concerns.

Ford, for instance, selected bamboo for the center console of the new Aston Martin DB9 Volante. Reichman says bamboo was chosen because it grows rapidly, renewing itself up to five times faster than other trees.

How do OEMs notoriously focused on cost cuts achieve world-class interiors? “Cost is one of the biggest issues, but we will spend more on interiors and still rein in costs,” Rand says, adding that not all GM suppliers are equipped to execute its interior strategy. He says GM realizes “an auto company gets the interiors it deserves.”

Ford's Reichman adds: “Great interiors don't have to break the bank.” And many consumers understand quality comes with a cost. “People are willing to spend more money for premium goods,” he says.

The competition is sure to be fierce. “Interiors are the new battleground in which new customers are won or lost,” Reichman says.