SOUTHFIELD, MI – With finely executed sedans and cross/utility vehicles that are new to the market this year, Asian auto makers secure seven spots among this year’s Ward’s 10 Best Interiors.

WardsAuto editors selected the top passenger compartments after spending February and March evaluating 46 vehicles that are all-new or feature significantly upgraded interiors. The winners will be recognized during a special ceremony at the WardsAuto Interiors Conference to be held May 22 at The Henry hotel in Dearborn, MI.

This year’s winners:

  • Acura RDX ($40,315)
  • Cadillac XTS ($64,695)
  • Chevrolet Spark ($15,795)
  • Hyundai Santa Fe Sport ($35,925)
  • Kia Forte ($25,515)
  • Lexus GS 450h ($68,139)
  • Mazda6 ($31,490)
  • Nissan Pathfinder ($44,395)
  • Ram 1500 Laramie Longhorn ($55,390)
  • Toyota Avalon ($42,449)

This is the third consecutive year WardsAuto editors have selected the industry’s top interiors by using the well-established model applied to the Ward’s 10 Best Engines competition, now entering its 20th year.

Editors drive the vehicles during their routine commutes and submit score sheets ranking each interior based on several criteria, including materials, ergonomics, comfort, safety, value, fit-and-finish and overall design. Scores also are applied based on the user-friendliness of the human-machine interface and the ability to link mobile phones and access vehicle information.

“This year’s batch of winners really drives home the point that interiors are a vital part of the battle for consumers’ hearts and minds,” says WardsAuto World Editor-in-Chief Drew Winter.

“It wasn’t uncommon all that long ago for auto makers to view interiors as the best place to take cost out of a vehicle. They eventually figured out that’s a big mistake, because people spend a lot more time looking at the inside of their car than the outside.”

The Acura RDX CUV, now in its second generation, secures its place with excellent fit-and-finish and an upscale sportiness that was lacking when the first version launched in 2006.

Editors rave about the RDX’s copious cargo hold, comfortable back seat and durable materials that should hold up well against the inherent abuse that comes from young families. Acura outsold Audi, Cadillac, Infiniti and Volvo in 2012 in the U.S., and the RDX interior demonstrates that Honda’s luxury brand can compete with the best.

The Cadillac XTS fullsize sedan earns its place with a thoroughly modern and intuitive HMI, the Cadillac User Experience, which can be voice-activated and integrates an adjustable head-up display that encourages drivers to keep their eyes on the road. CUE is being applied across the Cadillac range, with good reason.

All this state-of-the-art communications technology hardly overshadows the sumptuous 2-tone “Jet Black with Light Wheat” color scheme, punctuated by delightfully original accent stitching and beautiful ambient lighting that reaches out to younger buyers who are crucial to Cadillac’s ongoing success.

General Motors’ other award-winner this year stands as a polar opposite to the XTS. The Chevrolet Spark, developed in South Korea, is all about fun and function. Decked out in unforgettable “Jalapeno Green” inside and out, the Spark is bound to be that first new car for a lot of young buyers – one they will remember fondly.

Priced under $16,000, the Spark comes surprisingly well-equipped, with a leather-wrapped steering wheel, ample storage cubbies, heated front seats, head-curtain and side-impact airbags, 6-speaker high-end audio system, USB port and Chevrolet MyLink hands-free smartphone hookup. And don’t forget the luminescent green interior trim, which will kickstart anyone’s day.

The latest version of the Hyundai Santa Fe Sport is the essence of a midsize family CUV. It’s well-crafted, tastefully appointed and affordable, despite a decidedly premium look and feel.

The model, soon to be joined by a 3-row variant, illustrates how Hyundai is becoming a real leader in “branded” interiors, with unique aspects but shared core attributes.

For instance, the tapered center stack, familiar in newer Hyundai vehicles, is book-ended with distinctive angular vents and framed by a complex array of sloping surfaces of complementary colors and textures. This artistically charged instrument panel, with its butterscotch wood accents, steps to the edge of busy-ness, then prudently stops short.

The new Kia Forte demonstrates the big strides made by compact-car interiors in a relatively short time. Its controls are cleanly configured and easy to use, and the carbon fiber-like trim is a sporty, classy touch.

Starting at $15,900, the Forte has the lowest base price in its segment. And yet it delivers premium features, from a straightforward and intuitive communication system to brilliant door trim resembling the layered gills of a shark. Many of the Forte’s materials are upscale enough to warrant placement on luxury vehicles.

WardsAuto editors evaluated numerous luxury interiors this year and deemed the Lexus GS 450h to be the most visually stunning, from the satin metallic accents to the exotic bamboo trim, which brightens the cabin like a perfect sunset.

The rich, black leather, restrained backlighting and the level of craftsmanship throughout the cabin leave no doubt that Lexus is raising the bar for luxury interiors. The brand was shooting for a sporty, elegant ambiance, and the editors agree it succeeded.

Likewise, there was little argument that the new third-generation Mazda6 midsize sedan belongs on this year’s list because of its excellent infotainment system, creative touches, flowing lines, attention to detail and a starting price below $21,000.

The Mazda6’s overwhelming calling card is its color management. Black dominates, but seats and part of the door trim are almond and a horizontal plastic strip in deep burgundy sets off the instrument panel. Pulling it all together, while simultaneously highlighting these disparate shades, is contrast stitching of the same colors: almond, burgundy and black.

Nissan really did its homework in developing the all-new interior for the Pathfinder CUV, which is far more comfortable and generously equipped than the truck-based SUV version it replaces.

Capable of seating seven people comfortably, the Pathfinder is warm, inviting, spacious and ready for anything, thanks to the “Latch and Glide” second-row seats that offer easy back-row access. From the thick Berber carpet floor mats to the dual panorama sunroof, the new Pathfinder is a fine example of graceful utility.

Pent-up demand for pickup trucks is driving plenty of activity in the segment, and the redesigned Ram 1500 makes it to market ahead of GM, Ford and Toyota rivals also being redone.

Evaluated in pricey Western-themed Laramie Longhorn trim, the Ram 1500 is a spectacular, emotive interior that sets a high standard other auto makers will be hard-pressed to emulate.

The matte-finish wood trim is natural looking and of the highest quality; the buckled saddle bags attached to the seat backs hearken back to the pony express; and the filigree looks like it belongs on expensive cowboy boots.If Bentley made a pickup truck, its cabin would look like this.

Last but certainly not least is another car that delivers luxury from a mainstream brand.

Now in its fourth generation, the Toyota Avalon takes the traditional fullsize sedan interior to a new level with impeccable build quality, advanced connectivity, benchmark materials and a layered instrument-panel design that appears 3-dimensional, with gauges and the center stack seemingly floating in front of the dashboard.

The visual effect is exquisite, making the Avalon the most luxurious non-luxury car tested in the competition.

There was no price cap for Ward’s 10 Best Interiors entries.

An extensive package profiling the winners will appear April 29 on WardsAuto.com and in the May issue of WardsAuto World magazine.

tmurphy@wardsauto.com