Commentary

No one sets out to make an ugly vehicle interior. It evolves over time and requires many staff meetings.

Surprisingly, most of the defining features of a bad interior are the products of good intentions. They are the result of designers and engineers studiously following the wrong metrics, trying to camouflage flaws or make parts easier to manufacture.

Former General Motors Vice Chairman Bob Lutz’s new book is titled “Car Guys vs. Bean Counters,” but it isn’t just about evil accountants ruining good cars with cost cutting. It’s about good people trying to do the right thing but focusing on the wrong targets.

When Lutz hired on at GM in 2001 to head global product development, he was horrified by what he saw. “GM’s interiors were the worst in the business – dark, gray plastic wastelands,” he reads from his book at the recent Ward’s Auto Interiors conference.

“Some Pontiac instrument panels had all the appeal of molten lava that had spilled through the sunroof and cooled.”

Yet when he complained, Lutz says he was told the interiors were fine because J.D. Power Associates research showed they had fewer problems than competitors.

“Once again the analytical left brain is coming up with the wrong answer,” Lutz says. “Our freedom from defects merely meant that our speedometers worked and the knobs did not fall off. We were like a clothing store selling tailored burlap bags that fulfilled all the functions demanded of clothing.”

Besides an over reliance on metrics, stylists were focused on pleasing their corporate masters, not making interiors that would create desire in consumers. Their first priority was creating interiors that were easy to manufacture and would excel at hiding poor quality.

That meant offering a dull gray color pallet to limit production complexity and overly rounded lava flow-like corners that were easy to mold. Interior lines also were deliberately choppy so wide gaps and poor fits would be difficult to notice.

“It was like designing a watch with a really fat pointer so it’s tough to see if it’s a few minutes off,” Lutz says.

Designers, engineers and managers all were working long hours and thought they were doing what they were supposed to, but the outcome was falling vehicle sales, plunging profit margins and more demands for cost cuts.

Turning it all around required a major change in corporate culture that took years. Interior designers were given the same rank and status as exterior designers. Cost targets for new interiors were set and based on the best competitive vehicles.

And executives no longer were allowed to consider interiors as a happy hunting ground for last-minute cost savings.

Most of all, it took an all-out commitment from GM’s top brass to convince suppliers things really had changed at the beleaguered auto maker, and that the tough new specifications were real. If suppliers did not believe what they were seeing on the spec sheet, they were instructed to call the head of interior design or Lutz, himself.

It worked. The auto maker’s interiors now cost more, but GM vehicles are selling, and higher transaction prices outweigh the cost increases by a 5:1 ratio, Lutz says.

Lutz proved car guys indeed can triumph over bean counters and well-intentioned but misguided metrics. What remains to be seen is if it will be a lasting victory.

dwinter@wardsauto.com