Special Coverage

Auto Interiors Conference

DEARBORN, MI – The next generation of car buyers will demand additional personal space, a more functional cargo area and smarter family-friendly options from their vehicles.

Pat Murray, president-Murray Design LLC, likes to call the Millennial Generation, or those consumers born in the 1970s, the New American Family.

“They are very active and are very concerned about their individuality,” Murray tells a panel on family-friendly interiors at the Ward’s Auto Interiors Conference here. “But they are very child-centric, and their trips together are going to be very important.”

That places a premium on unique design; roomy and defined spaces inside a vehicle that each passenger can call their own; cargo areas where all the “play stuff” can be stowed neatly; and creative options to make family outings less raucous.

Murray offers designers this piece of advice: Listen to your mother. Globally, women make 80% of all family-purchase decisions and influence some $60 billion in annual spending, he notes.

“Keeping the family happy in the vehicle is what it is all about,” Murray says. “And keeping mom happy is most important. If mom is happy, everyone is happy.”

As such, auto makers must shift where they spend money. Do not stop at the instrument panel, Murray says, referring to a longtime tendency in North American vehicles. Address the center console by moving the gear shifter to the IP, for example, or design a floating console. Both free up storage space.

Neglecting the rear seat is another tendency in North America certain to turn off the Millennials, Murray says.

“This shift in priority of where we are going to spend our money, especially if you are concerned about families in the future, is very important.”

General Motors Co. took that approach with its red-hot Chevy Equinox cross/utility vehicle, redesigned for the ’10 model year.

Chris Hilts, creative design lead-Chevy Equinox, says the CUV’s design team attacked a number of specific areas, such as storage and function, value, family-friendly materials, technology everywhere, functional and decorative lighting and attention to detail.

“The Chevrolet Equinox needed to be an everyday hero,” Hilts says.

For example, the new Equinox receives a sliding second row to open up rear cargo space or improve legroom. Designers also identified high-traffic areas and applied durable, darker-colored and scuff-resistant materials.

No expense was spared on technology, Hilts says. Optional navigation systems receive larger 7-in. (18-cm) display screens, and available rear-seat entertainment systems come with dual flip-up screens mounted in the front seatbacks.

Ambient lighting inside the Equinox “surprises and delights,” he adds, serving both creative and functional roles.

The design team attended to the tiniest detail, Hilts says, incorporating items consumers might value but not entirely recognize. He admits the approach often led to battles within the development team.

“But if you keep fighting hard enough and keep asking why, you’ll get your answer,” he says.

Achieving certain singular brands elements, such as Chevy’s now-trademark dual-cockpit interior, involved much debate with the engineering team, Hilts notes. But getting interior elements correct was important because the previous-generation Equinox badly lacked brand character.

“We really fell on our sword there,” he says.

The strategy came through in spades for the auto maker.

According to Ward’s data, the previous-generation Equinox averaged 0.5% of the overall light-vehicle market in the 12 months prior to the introduction of the new Equinox, while the new model averaged 1.1% through April since its launch last June, a 220% increase in total market share.

Also in the 12 months prior to the introduction of the new Equinox, the previous model averaged 3.8% of Ward’s Middle CUV Segment. But the new model has averaged 7.3% in its first 10 months, a 91% increase in a segment that simultaneously has grown from 12.5% of the market to 15.5% since last June.

On a monthly basis, Equinox sales volumes since the ’10 model’s introduction in June 2009 have outpaced year-ago by an average 252%.

Not only do trends point to more family-friendly interiors, future buyers likely will want lighter colors inside their vehicles, as well.

Nathan Mullinix, vice president-research and development at leather-supplier Eagle Ottawa LLC, says 52% of all vehicles sold today have interior colors that are light or of a lighter value. In five years, 60% will contain lighter colors, the company predicts.

“We can certainly say that light colors are definitely in,” Mullinix says, noting the trend is moving down from luxury vehicles to other cars and trucks, including the family hauler.

“But as we think about these light trends,” he offers, “I wonder if there is a disconnect starting to form in peoples’ minds. Are we suggesting we are going to use light colors in family vehicles?”

That’s an important question for auto makers, because leather soiling and staining leads to customer complaints and sometimes costly warranty claims.

So while the future is light, future leathers also must be durable, soil resistant and easy to clean, Mullinix says.

jamend@wardsauto.com