Special Coverage

Auto Interiors Conference

DEARBORN, MI – Dynamic interiors executed with a focus on details, quality and targeting a specific consumer will be the hallmark of tomorrow’s vehicles, leading automotive designers say.

Ben Jimenez, project chief designer-Calty Design Research Inc., Toyota Design Network, calls the auto maker’s future approach “Vibrant Clarity,” or “a rational and emotive appeal combined with customer focus to achieve customer satisfaction.”

Jimenez, speaking at the Ward’s Auto Interiors Conference here, points to the all-new Venza, a 5-passenger cross/utility vehicle launched late last year, as the first product from the Japanese auto maker to fully capture the Vibrant Clarity approach.

Meant specifically for North American consumers, the vehicle was designed and engineered almost entirely in the U.S., leveraging expertise from Calty and other Toyota locations in Kentucky and California.

But Jimenez says small interior details combine to make Venza the “reward” its buyers seek.

For example, designers optimized the spaciousness of the first row, creating a “60/60-zone” for each passenger. In other words, the front passengers each claim 60% of the available area, compared with 40/20/40 sharing of most other vehicles.

Clear, purposeful instrumentation creates an environment of “advanced refinement,” he says. Also, specialized storage areas, such as a snug holder for a personal electronics device that hides wire connections, convey the feeling of a “perfect fit,” while a map pocket mounted on the passenger’s side of the transmission tunnel provides an extra few inches of inboard knee room.

The rear cargo area bulges out over the rear wheels, adding a few more inches of room than its competitors.

Jimenez says Toyota will carry the Vibrant Clarity philosophy into future products, but each new car or truck will have its own unique identity. “Each approach is a little different,” he says.

It’s all about the details at Chrysler LLC, as well, says Klaus Busse, director of the auto maker’s advanced interior design studio. Chrysler’s focus on interiors began in 2006, when present design chief Ralph Gilles established a dedicated studio for interiors where product programs are now done one at a time.

“We knew things could not go on like that,” Busse says of the past, pointing to an interior shot of the outdated ’06 Dodge Ram fullsize pickup. “Things had to change.”

Busse then flashes a slide of the new-for-’09 Ram, a Ward’s Interior of the Year winner for 2009 in the popular-priced truck category. “It says, ‘No, we haven’t forgotten great design.’”

Busse says key developments in recent years included a revelation by Chrysler management that taking cost out of a vehicle program with each new model year degraded quality. Also, management decided to bring in key suppliers earlier.

For instance, Visteon Corp. delivers the instrument panel to the Ram, featuring the industry’s first A-pillar to A-pillar molded seam with saddle-like parallel stitching. Ward’s judges cited the IP execution as a particularly refined design element. Busse says Visteon joined the new Ram program earlier than ever.

Illustrating Chrysler’s attention to detail between the ’06 Ram and the latest iteration, Busse points to the thumb wheel of the HVAC vents. The old part was molded hard plastic, whereas the new one receives a soft-touch rubber grip and chrome accents.

Busse says the Chrysler 200C, an EV concept unveiled at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit earlier this year, signals the future form vocabulary for the brand. But its development further reveals the auto maker’s commitment to interiors.

As Chrysler struggled to find the perfect touch screen for the 200C from suppliers, it decided to break off a team of its own computer and technology experts into a stand-alone department. The group was given great freedom, and it combed the personal electronics market to create the industry’s first free-form touch screen.

The technologists also integrated the Apple iPhone with the car, going so far as to borrow some of the device’s graphic displays, such as its Rolodex-like music library. A unique “passenger PC” slides out of the dash, so the passenger can scan music selections or navigation. The tablet involves the passenger more in the driving experience and reduces driver distraction.

Busse says the 200C illustrates the sort of work an auto maker can achieve when the fear of insolvency focuses the mind. “This is the perfect time for creative minds.”

Moray Callum, Ford Motor Co.’s new executive director of design for the Americas, says the Dearborn, MI-based auto maker talks quality in its studios, although not in the traditional context.

“Craftsmanship, material selection, fit and finish, those are the traditional aspects of quality,” Callum says. But at Ford, he adds, the concept expands to “the quality of the drive, the experience.”

Callum says for some drivers, today’s interiors have grown beyond a vehicle cabin and into something more like a family dining room, chat room or coffee house.

The key to perceived quality, Callum says, is to deliver on the promise of the brand. For example, the Ford Mustang’s interior must capture performance and heritage.

Ergonomics play a major role, too. When Ford designers approach a new instrument panel, for instance, they start with three gauges – speedometer, fuel tank and battery charge.

They build from there, trying to seamlessly incorporate unique items such as the Ford Fusion hybrid’s efficiency gauge, a vine that grows and dies with the driver’s fuel economy. The feature earned a special-achievement award for graphic display in this year’s Interior of the Year competition.

Infotainment also can reflect quality. Callum says buyers consider Ford products superior because every model carries the Sync option, and it’s easily upgradable by downloading updates to a USB stick and uploading them into the vehicle.

Sustainability, safety and convenience affect quality, as well, because more and more consumers are willing to pay for ecologically sound materials, such as the soy-foam seats of the Mustang, and new technologies such as adaptive cruise control, rear-view cameras, cross-traffic alerts and active park assist.

Callum traces Ford’s recent strides in interior design to the ’01 Ford F-150 fullsize pickup and expects the Ford Fiesta coming to the U.S. next year from the auto maker’s plant in Cuautitlan, Mexico, to be a smash hit.

“We are all excited,” Callum says of the B-car. “It’s for the connected generation – an extremely dynamic interior.”

Callum also admits greater attention to a vehicle’s interior does little to improve sales results in today’s record-weak market, but says it does lead to a richer mix that can grow profit margins.

“People want high-quality interiors, and they are willing to pay for it,” he says.

Jimenez agrees, adding consumers today scrutinize interiors more closely, because in a weak economy most intend to hold onto their vehicles longer.

“People will check and double-check that they make specific decisions on the car they buy,” he says.

jamend@wardsauto.com