Special Coverage

Auto Interiors Conference

After more than two months of fiddling with knobs, climbing into back seats, scouring about for USB jacks and generally picking apart 40 new vehicle interiors, the editors of Ward’s Automotive Group announce the winners of the 2010 Interior of the Year awards.

The diverse list celebrates everything from sporty affordability and clever functionality to dramatic styling and over-the-top luxury.

This year’s winners:

  • Subaru Outback (Popular-Priced car under $29,999)
  • Infiniti M56 (Premium-Priced car)
  • Lexus HS 250h (Hybrid car)
  • Chevrolet Camaro (Sports car)
  • Chevrolet Equinox (Popular-Priced truck under $39,999)
  • Volvo XC60 (Premium-Priced truck)
  • Acura ZDX (Design Breakthrough)
  • Mazdaspeed3 (Brand Expression)
  • BMW 550i Gran Turismo (Design Versatility)
  • Porsche Panamera Turbo (Inspired Design)

Throughout February, March and early April, eight Ward’s editors evaluated 40 vehicle interiors. The 40 nominees were either all-new vehicles or offered significantly upgraded interiors for the 2010 model year.

A few ’11 vehicles (such as the Infiniti M56) were included in the competition, while others (such as the new Ford Mustang and Jeep Grand Cherokee) were not available in time for evaluations and will be part of the 2011 test pool.

Editors submitted scoresheets for each vehicle and awarded points based on fit-and-finish, comfort, material selection, safety and overall value.

They also paid attention to ergonomics and awarded points for accessibility of buttons, switches, vehicle controls and USB audio jacks. They climbed into the back seats of sporty coupes and into the third row of SUVs and cross/utility vehicles.

They folded down back seats to see how much usable storage space was gained and whether the load floor was relatively flat.

Most important, editors evaluated design harmony and aesthetics to see if all the design elements came together to impress, delight, soothe and surprise drivers and passengers.

“For years, the focus on safety and functionality has given us drab, uninspired vehicle interiors,” says Ward’s AutoWorld Editor-in-Chief Drew Winter. “This year’s winners show style and original design is becoming as important inside the vehicle as it already is to the sheet metal outside.”

This year’s nominees were split into six vehicle categories, two of which were price-capped. From year to year, the categories change based on launch cycles. For instance, four hybrids were new to the market, so they were given their own category.

The four special-achievement awards hold equal weight with the winners of the individual vehicle categories.

The truck segment includes truck-based SUVs and cross/utility vehicles built on car platforms, such as the Equinox and XC60, because the Environmental Protection Agency considers them trucks for fuel-economy rating purposes. Ward’s also classifies the vehicles as trucks in its segmentation, partly because of cargo-hauling capability.

The only conventional pickup in this year’s competition was the Ram Heavy Duty. Its interior largely carries over from the light-duty Ram, which won the popular-priced truck category in 2009. Next year’s competition will include the new heavy-duty pickups from the Ford and Chevrolet brands.

The Equinox won this year’s Popular-Priced Truck category for wonderfully blending sensible functionality with high-quality, stylish materials generally expected in more upscale vehicles.

In the Premium-Priced Truck category, the XC60 enthralled editors with its floating boomerang-shaped natural-oak center stack that begged fingernails to feel the grain (yes, it’s real wood).

This year’s Popular-Priced Car winner is the Subaru Outback wagon, which shares its platform with the Legacy sedan and offers remarkable comfort, features and versatility for under $30,000.

Also under $30,000, this year’s Sports Car winner is the all-new Chevrolet Camaro, which carries on some classic Camaro styling cues while delivering a host of contemporary technologies.

In the Premium-Priced Car category, the Infiniti M56 faced some formidable rivals but wooed the editors with a sophisticated mix of sporty luxury and generous doses of ash-wood trim on the center console, instrument panel and doors.

Some vehicles in the premium-car category demand special recognition.

For instance, the BMW 550i Gran Turismo takes certain 7-Series interior cues to a whole new level with ingeniously conceived second-row seats that recline and fold flat to provide considerable storage space, accessible from an equally impressive 2-way liftgate.

At the top of the price pyramid, the $153,640 Porsche Panamera Turbo swept judges off their feet with a melange of “yachting blue” leather, creamy upholstery and artistically arrayed controls in the center console.

The Gran Turismo is recognized for Design Versatility, while the Panamera’s award is for Inspired Design.

Another special-achievement award for Brand Expression goes to the Mazdaspeed3, which delivers a fetching interior that relies on one accent color: red. From the stitching on the manual shifter boot to the blazing, swirling fabric pattern on the seats and doors, the interior appears too hot to touch.

The hybrid winner is the handsomely appointed Lexus HS 250h sedan, which offers a unique human/machine interface and looks and feels more like a no-compromise luxury car than a conventional hybrid. And it still delivered better than 31 mpg (7.6 L/100 km) during our test.

Rounding out the list is the Acura ZDX, which wins a special-achievement award for Design Breakthrough with its unusual mocha leather and futuristic styling cues that match up well with the ZDX’s aggressive exterior styling.

The winners will be recognized in a ceremony May 19 at the Ward’s Auto Interiors Conference at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Dearborn, MI.

A complete package about Ward’s Interior of the Year competition, including profiles of the winning vehicles, will appear on WardsAuto.com April 26 and in the May issue of Ward’s AutoWorld magazine.

tmurphy@wardsauto.com