Special Coverage

Auto Interiors Conference

DEARBORN – Several Audi AG staffers from Germany literally made themselves at home with five American families, living with them for six weeks to get consumer information for the development of the upcoming redesigned Audi A8.

The U.S. hosts are Audi owners, and “we wanted to see not only how they lived, but how they interacted with the product,” Audi head of design Stefan Sielaff says in a keynote speech during the Ward’s Auto Interiors Conference here. “It really helps when you learn people’s wants and needs.”

The house guests included a designer, engineer, marketer and production representative. Their stay in California helped the German luxury auto maker better understand American automotive tastes, such as a preference for roominess.

“The relationship to space and size is different here than in Germany,” Sielaff tells Ward’s. “We try to be careful not to forget life-styles are different here. It’s important not to look at your belly button as the center of the world.”

The Audi designer who made the U.S. trip has become something of an ambassador for American customers, Sielaff says. “He’ll say things like, ‘The graphic on this switch is too small.’ He also notes that we want to be careful not to make it an engineering game to operate a switch.”

Attention to details is what has earned Audi in general, and its interiors in particular, a reputation for excellence.

A conference participant from a competing auto company says Audi interiors are the industry benchmark, excelling in harmoniously bringing together hundreds of different elements.

If the devil is in the details – such as making sure all 36,500 upholstery stitches in an A8 are perfect – Sielaff has no problem taking the heat.

“This daily working of the details is enjoyable,” he says. “We experience a lot of joy working the details out.” Attention is paid to the littlest things, such as a little needle on an instrument panel gauge.

But he concedes that’s not unique to Audi. “Every designer in this room probably has had the same experience,” Sielaff tells the conference audience.

He oversees a relatively lean staff of 180 at four design centers, three in Europe and a small one in the U.S. Sometimes, during a day at the main facility in Germany, “24 hours is not enough.”

Design students are welcome and encouraged to not just watch but join in. “It’s possible for anyone on the team, if they have a strong idea, to push it through,” Sielaff says.

Ultimately, though, “everyone has to do an Audi design,” he says, meaning the auto maker’s styling philosophy must be followed, from concept to design to a translated realization to the product launch.

Audi interior design cues include a driver-oriented cockpit; slim, horizontal dashboards and a lifted shifter stick. All Audis of the future will be equipped with foldaway display panels for the likes of navigation screens.

Like most modern luxury cars, Audis sport plenty of high-technology gadgetry. Sielaff is fine with that. But he adds: “We are still driving a car, not a computer. So we must have an automotive emotion. It’s almost a philosophical question.”

Consumers are pretty smart, he says. Looking at surfaces, seams and fits, they can quickly detect the quality of an interior. The success of a car overall often is determined by a customer’s impression when he or she first opens the door and looks inside.

sfinlay@wardsauto.com