SOUTHFIELD, MI – The 11 winners of the 2009 Ward’s Interior of the Year awards have two key elements in common: great looks and great value.

Ward’s editors evaluated a field of 35 vehicles that are either all-new or have significantly upgraded interiors for the ’09 or ’10 model years.

“There are certain aspects we look at closely in the Interior of the Year competition, and value is just as important to us as fit-and-finish, styling, comfort and safety,” says Drew Winter, editor-in-chief of Ward’s AutoWorld magazine.

“An interior doesn’t have to be expensive to be good,” Winter says. “But it does have to convey a sense of high-quality craftsmanship and have pleasing textures and low-gloss surfaces. Electronic systems have to be intuitive and easy to use and not just focus on offering a high number of features and functions. Consumers are becoming a lot savvier about what they want inside their vehicles.”

This year’s winners:

  • Honda Fit Sport (Economy-priced car)
  • Volkswagen CC (Popular-priced car)
  • Kia Soul (Grooviest Interior)
  • Acura TL (Premium-priced car)
  • Nissan 370Z Touring (Sports car)
  • Dodge Ram (Popular-priced truck)
  • Ford Flex (Premium-priced truck)
  • Audi A4 (Best Redesign)
  • Ford Fusion Hybrid (Best Graphic Display)
  • Lexus RX 450h (Design Harmony)
  • Cadillac CTS-V (Best Brand Expression)

All 35 vehicles were divided into six car and truck segments based on price. One winner is named for each of the six categories, plus special-achievement honorees are selected in five other areas. The 11 awards carry equal weight.

Having both types of awards allows vehicles to compete with others in their segment, as well as with the entire field, regardless of price.

“Some interiors come along that are so unique, so functional, so appealing that we must recognize them,” Winter says. “Only one vehicle will be recognized for brand expression, or for redesign, so those awards are just as hard to win – if not harder – than those for each of the segments.”

Ward’s editors were dazzled by interiors in the most expensive vehicles tested this year, with some nearing six figures. But when the judging was complete, the more affordable vehicles prevailed.

Among the winners is the all-new Lexus RX 450h hybrid-electric cross/utility vehicle, which goes on sale in August. Pricing has yet to be announced, but the current RX 400h hybrid starts at $42,080.

The RX, with its riveting asymmetrical center stack, tasteful wood steering wheel and luscious color palette, is recognized with a special-achievement award for Design Harmony.

At the low end, the Honda Fit claims this year’s prize for economy-priced cars. With its ingenious second-row flexibility, ample headroom and premium materials, Honda proves an inexpensive car need not feel cheap.

Also on the less-expensive side, the Kia Soul grabs the spotlight with its Grooviest Interior recognition. Priced at $18,345, the 5-passenger Soul Sport reaches out to youthful buyers with an ideal mix of comfort, quality and funkiness, with lighted door speakers that flash to the beat of the music.

In the popular-priced car category, the Volkswagen CC springs from the well-regarded Passat architecture and adds a beautifully executed interior that puts this $28,225 4-door coupe in serious competition with more expensive luxury cars.

The all-new Cadillac CTS-V, with its intoxicating styling and angular instrument panel, wins a special-achievement award for Brand Expression. Priced at $68,135 with a dizzying array of electronic gadgets, the 556-hp CTS-V is for the serious driver who craves equal amounts of performance and style.

If price is an object, the 2-seat Nissan 370Z Touring pairs a potent 332 hp with a purposeful passenger compartment that manages to be both spacious and sporty, while paying homage to famous Z cars of the past, all for $36,865.

In the premium-priced car category, the all-new Acura TL, at $42,995, delivers creamy caramel-tone leather and sporty luxury in a breathtaking combination that instantly raises Acura’s stature among upscale buyers.

Likewise, the all-new Audi A4 secures the German auto maker’s sterling reputation for benchmark interiors. Priced at $40,825, the new A4 exudes understated but unmistakable elegance.

Ford Motor Co. wins two spots on this year’s Interior of the Year list for its Ford brand. The $43,875 Flex CUV wins in the premium-truck category, while the $29,590 Fusion Hybrid earns a special-achievement award for Best Graphic Display.

Ward’s editors marveled at the amount of information Ford engineers managed to fit into the Fusion Hybrid’s relatively small instrument cluster above the steering wheel, all the while encouraging fuel-efficient driving with a digitally projected vine that sprouts leaves as mileage grows.

The Flex demonstrates marvelous flexibility in a 6-passenger seating configuration that employs high-quality materials and a supremely nifty power folding function for second-row seats, allowing easy access to the third row.

In the popular-priced truck category, the all-new Dodge Ram trumps its rival, the new Ford F-150, with a spacious, well-conceived interior that fits as well on the job site as at the soccer field. The $39,870 Ram 1500 Crew Cab Sport offers great value with four full doors, leather upholstery and plenty of clever storage bins.

Throughout February and March, Ward’s editors evaluated the vehicles during their daily driving cycles and awarded points for design, material selection, fit-and-finish, ergonomics, driver information, safety, value and comfort.

The winners will be honored May 21 at the Ward’s Auto Interiors Conference, to be held at the Dearborn Ritz Carlton.

For feature stories about each of the 11 winners, as well as a complete list of the 35 vehicles evaluated, see the special report on WardsAuto.com April 27 and in the May issue of AutoWorld magazine.

tmurphy@wardsauto.com