Seven brands earn spots on the Wards 10 Best Interiors list for the first time, while three returning winners introduce groundbreaking designs and features that promise to win over new customers.

Now in its seventh year, the Wards 10 Best Interiors list recognizes outstanding achievement in aesthetics, comfort, ergonomics, materials usage, fit-and-finish and user-friendly electronics.There is no price cap, and each year’s field of nominees consists of interiors that are all-new or have been significantly improved from the prior year.

This year, 31 interiors were eligible, and WardsAuto editors evaluated and scored them during February and March.

Based on automaker product cycles, the nominee pool tilted heavily toward the luxury side of the market. In past years, Audi, BMW, Cadillac, Infiniti, Lexus and Mercedes-Benz have populated the list, but this year only Lexus finds its way back to the winners’ circle.Honda and Mazda are the only other winners this year to have made the list previously.

This year’s winners, in alphabetical order:

  • Alfa Romeo Giulia ($50,490 as tested)
  • Bentley Bentayga ($278,730)
  • Buick LaCrosse ($50,270)
  • Honda CR-V ($34,635)
  • Lexus LC 500 ($102,995)
  • Lincoln Continental ($72,870)
  • Maserati Levante ($90,000)
  • Mazda CX-9 ($45,855)
  • Mini Countryman ($38,450)
  • Subaru Impreza ($29,260)

“We strive every year to compile a list that is diverse, representing as many segments and price points as possible,” says Drew Winter, senior content director at WardsAuto.

“The fact that seven brands are receiving their first Wards 10 Best Interiors trophies is a testament to the advances made across the entire auto industry. Prospective buyers in all vehicle segments want and deserve functional and beautiful interiors. Here are our 10 favorites.”

Alfa Romeo returned to the U.S. market a few years ago with its limited-purpose 4C coupe and convertible 2-seater, but its new Giulia sport sedan delivers an interior sure to alter the dynamic of the highly competitive Lower Luxury car sector.

From the F1-inspired steering wheel and creamy leather seats to the matte-finish genuine walnut trim on the doors, instrument panel and stylishly arrayed center console, the Giulia does its Italian design heritage proud.

WardsAuto editors rave about the expertly applied metallic accents, outstanding build quality, artistic lines, the intuitive control screen that blends neatly into the instrument panel and the tidy white stitching that sweeps across the soft-touch black IP and upper door trim.

Like Alfa, Bentley lands its first Wards 10 Best Interiors win with the Bentayga, a cabin that sets the standard for ultra-luxury SUVs. This is Bentley’s first ute, but its lavish and functional interior suggests the British automaker unleashed its best designers to integrate ideas and themes they had been pondering for years.

“The leather is so soft and smooth I can barely keep my hands off it,” writes one WardsAuto editor on his scoresheet. Massaging seats, a state-of-the-art infotainment system in both rows, a $4,700 Naim premium audio system, top-notch driver-assistance features and a lovely fold-out leather bench seat ideal for polo-match tailgating make the Bentayga undeniably appealing.

Yes, it’s very expensive, but Bentleys are largely hand-built and the craftsmanship inside reflects that. The interior’s most striking feature is its luscious burnt orange leather, marketed under the name “Newmarket Tan,” with diamond stitching to resemble the quilted shoulder of a British shooting jacket.

Buick, Honda, Lexus, Lincoln

Buick has a long history of premium cars, and its fully redesigned LaCrosse sedan interior ushers the brand into a new era that sees it soaring in China and pushing new product in the U.S.

Expressive lines on the 2-tier instrument panel and door trim create a soothing, contemporary environment inside the LaCrosse, enhanced by light neutral leather with dark brown accents, rich wood-grain film, an uncluttered center console, massaging front seats, a roomy backseat and a general feeling of spaciousness.

WardsAuto editors appreciate the lightning-fast phone pairing, circular-knit headliner, exemplary driver-assistance features, branded brushed-aluminum sillplates, generous storage hold below the center console, textured rubber floors in cubbies and bins and outboard second-row seats that fold without interference from seatbelts.

Honda has earned Wards 10 Best Interiors trophies in past years for its Civic, Fit and Odyssey, and this year the CR-V, America’s best-selling utility vehicle, lands in the winners’ circle with a cabin that is upscale, clean, functional and supremely well built.

A cargo hold that can accommodate four suitcases, a slick center console with a movable tray and two USB chargers in the front and two in the rear suggest the design team overlooked nothing in taking the CR-V interior to a new level. The automaker claims top-in-class cabin quietness and interior space for a ute priced to start at $24,045.

Our Touring test model gets high marks from WardsAuto editors for its bronze-tinted strips decorating the doors and instrument panel, the half-moon touch-sensitive volume button on the steering wheel, the floating (and easy-to-use) display screen and a digital gauge cluster that some judges found retro while others called futuristic.

Looking to the future, Lexus creates a dramatic new design language with its new LC 500 coupe that promises to win Toyota’s luxury brand serious consideration among well-heeled buyers of exotic sports cars.

The muscular, low-slung exterior is reinforced once the doors open and reveal a cabin appointed with carbon-fiber scuff plates, grippy high-shoulder leather seats and Alcantara microsuede overhead. We always knew Lexus was capable of a breathtaking interior like we see now in the LC.

The color palette alone for this interior is striking, from the rich crimson Rioja Red to Bespoke White, which blends ivory with blue and orange accent colors for the customer who wants something truly unique. Even with a seemingly conservative color scheme – caramel beige in our test car – the design elements, such as the dramatic door trim with grooves that flow like drapery, immediately won over our judges.

Ford’s Lincoln luxury brand is counting on its new Continental flagship sedan to lead a resurgence for the brand. Its gorgeous interior surely will help its fortunes, with soft ambient lighting that glows at night, reconfigurable gauges, supple Alpine Venetian leather seats and a cavernous second row.

The Line Validation Center at the assembly plant in Flat Rock, MI, conducts a “white glove” test to make sure no seam is askew in the new Continental, and this attention to detail shows in the rich multi-colored grain of the real “Silver Wood” used throughout the interior; thigh bolsters that can extend one leg at a time; the 2-tone steering wheel carefully stitched; and the decorative soft panels trimmed in chrome (and lit at night) on either side of the center console – a space between the knee and foot that usually gets little design attention.

Some of these extras came as part of our Black Label test model, a package that carries a $6,000 premium and includes the 19-speaker Revel Ultima audio system. Premium sound systems are all the rage, but Revel Ultima, with its ability to virtually put the listener in the studio, on stage or in the concert hall, creates auditory magic that will have drivers taking the long way home.

Maserati, Mazda, Mini, Subaru

Alfa Romeo isn’t the only Italian marque appearing on this year’s list. Its corporate sibling Maserati arrives with the Levante, a sporty CUV with a crafted interior that is a fascinating blend of premium brown leather, sumptuous Ebano wood, distinctive white stitching, minimal brightwork and “Zegna edition” silk fabric, which feels as durable as industrial-strength denim.

The design team wanted the Levante to represent a feast for the senses, a car that would be heard, felt, seen and smelled from the driver’s seat. The Ferrari-derived twin-turbo V-6 and 900-watt Harman Kardon sound system delivers the soundtrack.

Derived from Maserati’s Ghibli platform, the Levante clearly is configured for the driver, with easy-to-reach controls, a user-friendly UConnect infotainment system and large gear-shift paddles fixed in place like in an F1 car, in case there is any question about how the Levante is to be driven.

Reinforcing that point is the second row, which is comfortable but lacks the amenities generally offered in a utility vehicle approaching $100,000, such as rear entertainment screens. Perhaps part of an emerging trend, the automaker left out that option to keep down cost and weight and because many backseat dwellers now are using their own tablets and devices.

Mazda won a Wards 10 Best Engines trophy earlier this year for its new CX-9 3-row CUV, and now the brand can add a 10 Best Interiors award to its trophy case.

The near-luxury CX-9 does everything a 7-passenger ute should do – haul people comfortably, accommodate lots of cargo, rise to the occasion for a long road trip – with style and grace. This is the kind of upscale versatility that makes utility vehicles so popular in America.

Editors praised the CX-9 for its textured knobs and dials; comfortable third row; limited use of chrome; impeccable fit-and-finish; rubber-lined bin ahead of the shifter; knee pad along the center console; intuitive central controller and head-up display; and use of black accents against the light brown leather seats.

It’s hard to believe the CX-9 is the first Mazda to use real aluminum and rosewood on the doors, instrument panel and center console, because they blend in well enough to suggest the automaker has been using those materials for years.

The modern Mini, under BMW tutelage, has found an audience in the U.S., even though most Americans prefer larger vehicles, so the brand is evolving to meet those needs.

Its new Countryman compact CUV carries over many of the interior quirks that have charmed consumers, such as the airplane-like toggles and the kitchen-clock-like display screen atop the center stack. But the Countryman – the largest Mini ever – delivers something previous models could not: space.

Headroom and legroom are vastly improved, comparable with high-volume entries that lack the Mini’s flair, while controls remain easily in reach for the driver.

Certain elements shine in the new Countryman, such as the extended thigh support for front-seat occupants; the heavy-duty package tray above the cargo hold; the simple straps used to release and fold second-row seats; and, especially, the quilted “Chesterfield” mocha leather that contrasts with both white seat piping and black accents on the doors and instrument panel.

The Countryman demonstrates how Mini is growing up, and it’s bound to connect with a broader pool of American buyers because of it.

Subaru also lands its first Wards 10 Best Interiors trophy with, ironically, the least-expensive vehicle in its lineup. The fully re-engineered Impreza achieves a level of interior excellence never before seen from the Japanese brand, and the design team was urged to create a new styling language that could extend to other vehicles as they are refreshed.

Anchoring the Impreza’s clean interior is an all-new crisp, easy-to-use telematics screen bookended by angular vertical vents on a gently sloping instrument panel distinguished by judiciously applied contrast stitching and metallic trim. Buttons are very few but ergonomically placed.

Seats are well-bolstered and artfully sewn, and doors are finished with high-luster simulated carbon-fiber trim. We haven’t seen a compact car improve this dramatically since last year, when the Honda Civic earned a 10 Best Interiors nod.

Customers can get into an Impreza for under $19,000, and we tested two versions: the $23,615 Sport model with fabric seats and simulated carbon-fiber gauges and the $29,260 Limited edition with leather. Both interiors were well equipped with a secondary upper information screen, driver-assistance features and enough premium trim and soft surfaces to suggest the Impreza is much more than an entry-level car.

The 2017 Wards 10 Best Interiors winners will be honored in a special ceremony during the WardsAuto Interiors Conference on May 9 at Cobo Conference Center in Detroit. Winning vehicles will be on display.

For more information about the day-long conference visit http://autointeriors.com.

tmurphy@wardsauto.com