DEARBORN, MI – The 2013 WardsAuto Interiors Conference kicks off this morning, and two keynote speakers, 24 presenters, top-notch design students and more than 500 attendees represent the supporting cast.

And even though the subject matter may differ from one speaker to another, the overriding message at The Henry hotel in Dearborn, MI, ultimately is the same: Vehicle interiors are a battleground in today’s market, and various sectors of the industry are striving to deliver the newest technology, the cleanest fit-and-finish, the most advanced human-machine interface and the most comfortable seats at the best price.

For the past several years, J.D. Power and Associates research has identified interior comfort as the second-most important factor for consumers shopping for a new vehicle.

Reliability/durability remains the No.1 purchase consideration, but it actually has slipped over the past five years, says Mike VanNieuwkuyk, executive director-global automotive at J.D. Power.

He says the data suggests consumers expect every auto maker to deliver on reliability, which makes it less of a differentiating factor. Interior comfort, however, can vary greatly among brands based on feature content and available technology, so VanNieuwkuyk expects interior comfort to remain a prominent aspect among shoppers well into the future.

Across every vehicle segment, from subcompacts and high-volume midsize cars to luxury coupes and pickup trucks, auto makers are expanding their offerings within the passenger compartment, he says.

“We see better execution, better materials and more focus on comfort and convenience,” says VanNieuwkuyk, who will speak on a panel session dedicated to connectivity.

“The lower end of the market has some of the best technologies and also far better materials than in the past. It’s about better use of lighting and electronics,” he says. “These features used to show up first on Cadillacs, and you’d hope to see them on a Chevrolet. Now, these features are rolling out at Chevrolet. That’s a benefit to the consumer.”

Consider the purchase factors that rank lower than interior comfort: exterior styling, fuel economy and quality of workmanship, among others.

“The interior is gaining in importance, and the reason for that is clear: We spend so much time in the vehicle and we want that time to be more valuable,” VanNieuwkuyk says. “People are so used to being entertained and connected, they can’t understand why the vehicle wouldn’t be an extension of that.”

Improving a vehicle interior generally is easier and quicker for an auto maker than re-engineering a chassis, engine or suspension.

For instance, the Honda Civic was all-new less than two years ago and recently was refreshed, primarily in the interior. The powertrain offerings were unchanged, and exterior styling changes were minimal.

Ever since the Ward’s 10 Best Engines template was applied to the Ward’s 10 Best Interiors competition three years ago, the number of vehicles with eligible interiors has outnumbered vehicles evaluated for the engine competition by a healthy margin.

Why? Because designing a world-class engine requires massive capital outlay, vast engineering resources and significant time to retool a plant to manufacture it.

Interior upgrades, on the other hand, in many cases can be folded in to assembly as a running change, and interior suppliers are more likely to shoulder development and production costs than in the powertrain realm.

This heightened awareness of the importance of interiors will be explored by the morning keynote speaker, Amko Leenarts, Ford’s director-global interior design strategy, and the afternoon keynote presenter, Johann Jungwirth, president and CEO of Mercedes-Benz Research & Development North America, based in Silicon Valley.

In addition, trophies will be presented to auto makers winning this year’s Ward’s 10 Best Interiors competition, and students from the College for Creative Studies will be recognized for their interior concepts intended to meet the needs of a growing young family on the go.

tmurphy@wardsauto.com