DETROIT – As auto makers continue to jazz up the interiors of their high-volume vehicles with features typically reserved for luxury models, they must strike a perfect balance or risk diluting the definition of premium, experts tell attendees at the Ward’s Auto Interiors Show.

“Focus on smart design and what we would refer to as the magic of the interior,” says Rob Huber, a designer with European-based supplier Faurecia SA. “That will set the bar higher.”

In other words, surprise the premium consumer with clever functionality.

Huber points to Faurecia’s “Premium Attitude” concept car.

Unveiled at last year’s Los Angeles International Auto Show, the concept includes thoughtful surprises such as a “magic wave” instrument panel. The IP allows users to visually shut off elements of the central display to enhance driver concentration, lower distraction and improve safety, Huber says.

A “magic skin,” with kinematics hidden underneath, slowly rises from the top of the central instrument panel and stretches up to meet the top of the dashboard, covering information screens not required at that moment.

Another clever idea puts user controls near the concept car’s two outer air vents, rather than in the center of the instrument panel. It is a neat, intuitive and logical execution, Huber says.

In addition, the concept features a sliding tray in the trunk, which functions like a chest of drawers or a tool box. An ultra-flat muffler, also developed by Faurecia, makes the feature possible.

Benjamin Jimenez, project chief designer for Toyota Motor Corp.’s Calty Design Research Inc., says auto makers should look to premium consumers’ lifestyles for inspiration.

“That’s something you would not expect an entry-level vehicle to approach,” Jimenez says.

He points to the ’09 Venza cross/utility vehicle Toyota unveiled at the North American International Auto Show in January. The Venza, which goes on sale in the U.S. late this year, contains specially designed holders for an MP3 player and cellular telephone.

“Those are items the luxury consumer would carry with them and they value,” Jimenez says. “It sets the tone of the car.”

The rear cargo area of the Venza, a vehicle Toyota considers the reward for a lifetime of work, also was designed to accommodate tour-sized golf bags a luxury consumer would carry.

The Venza includes a unique 60/60 cockpit design, where each front passenger enjoys 60% of the vehicle’s forward space, giving the CUV the spacious feel of a luxury model. Most vehicles feature a 40/40 design, Jimenez says.

“The 60/60 definition will stay with the Venza,” he says of an idea that goes back to the Toyota FTX concept car. “But the idea of creating more space through shapes we bring to the interior is something we’ll see throughout Toyota.”

Lorene Boettcher, design manager-Americas & Asia Pacific for Seton Co., says leather will continue to play a role in premium interiors.

“There will be a movement of leather-wrapping to make a vehicle even more luxurious, and this is happing because it is profitable for car companies,” she says. “Outside of wheels, leather is the most profitable item on a vehicle.”

jamend@wardsauto.com