Polished wood, leather and lots of extras aimed at coddling drivers and passengers traditionally have distinguished luxury models from mass-market cars and trucks, but this tried-and-true formula is being questioned like never before.

That’s because an unprecedented number of less-expensive and – gasp – even entry-level vehicles now are offering many of the same features and amenities that formerly only were available on high-end brands.

Designers and engineers are scrambling to find new materials, technology and design cues for the interiors of truly high-end models that project the exclusivity and an image of success that luxury buyers crave.  

The task isn’t easy, mainly because upscale features are moving downstream so quickly. For instance, the ’12 Hyundai Elantra, which starts at around $15,000, is available with heated front and rear seats.

The ’13 Honda Accord, one of America’s most ubiquitous family cars, will offer lane-departure warning and blind-spot detection, as will the next-generation Ford Fusion sedan.

The Fusion also promises a 10-way power driver’s seat with power lumbar support and fancy interior stitching.

“If you can get a Ford Fusion with contrast-stitch leather, (that is) 2-tone and perforated, with welts on the seats – all traditional luxury upscale items – you’re going to have to come up with something that’s more innovative or new,” says Pat Murray, of brand consulting and product development firm Murray Design.

This search for something fresh is leading designers into completely new areas of product development. Trim materials made from stone or minerals are being considered as replacements for traditional wood and metal, and new approaches to traditional materials are under research, all in an effort to provide a greater sense of personalization.

Technology is being re-evaluated as well and may be minimized visually in future cabins.

“If you looked back and saw what was luxury, to me luxury was if you had (a tech-y) feature and some leather and wood, albeit glossy wood,” says Magna’s Rich Hager, business development manager-interiors.

Wood and leather, as well as some forms of metallic trim, likely are here to stay, but the way those materials are sourced and applied is evolving.

“I think they’ll be much more sustainably done,” says Susan Swek, Ford and Lincoln group chief designer-color, materials and interior. “There needs to be a story and a meaning behind them.”

Playing into this notion, Lincoln is aiming to use recycled aluminum in its future vehicles, as well as source leather from humanely raised cows, Swek says.

Cloth is common in luxury cars in Europe, including the cutting-edge interior of the Audi A8. Cloth, instead of leather, also covers the instrument panel in the new Fisker Karma. Faux leather and synthetic materials such as Alcantara are viewed favorably by some luxury buyers because they are considered better for the environment and more exclusive than conventional leather.

Fisker already is taking the story-behind-the-trim approach with one of the decorative wood options in the Karma extended-range electric vehicle: reclaimed 300-year-old white oak from the bottom of Lake Michigan.

The wood has a matte finish, as does the open-pore poplar in the new BMW 3-Series and Chrysler 300 Luxury Series.

These types of timber lend a natural look and feel to their respective vehicles, a future luxury design trend. Materials that are “authentic,” rare and have imperfections will be key, Murray and Hager say.

The use of reclaimed wood, or similarly, leather with barbed-wire marks, also feeds a luxury buyer’s desire for exclusive items that aren’t mass-produced, Hager says.

“Luxury is very self-centered. It’s hard to describe it that way because it sounds like a negative trait, but it’s a positive trait,” Murray says. “Luxury is all about me.”

That’s why the appearance of being handcrafted is so important, Murray says. Buyers want to feel as though the product was made exclusively for them and there are no others like it.

Minerals such as citrine, onyx, amethyst and various agates are popular for this reason in architectural design. They are not used in auto interiors yet, but they likely will be because they fit the luxury vehicle buyer’s need for authentic and natural materials.

In upscale home decor, bathroom vanity tops made of onyx are backlit. Light filtering through these translucent materials in a similar way would lend a soft, warm glow in a vehicle interior, Murray says. And citrine, for example, is malleable and thus compatible with safety regulations.

While his company specializes in home decor applications of gemstones, Siddharth Gaur, director-Creation Gems of India, says their use is "practical for car interiors" if thin slices of the materials are fused to a lightweight acrylic.

"We use this technology for interiors where weight is an important consideration, like in airplanes and (elevators)," he says of prior uses of the technique.

Glass is another possible future interior-trim material, says Magna’s Hager. Some Tier 1 suppliers have toyed with the idea of replacing plastic with glass as instrument-panel and center-stack trim.

J.D. Power & Associates’ consumer-research data shows hard plastic trim is universally detested by luxury buyers.

While decorative glass meets the definition of “authentic,” crash-worthy versions still have to be developed, Hager says.

Technology has infiltrated every aspect of luxury interiors during the past decade. In-vehicle infotainment systems, featuring everything from high-definition radio to weather reports and tire-pressure data, are placed into menus and sub-menus, accessed via multi-function touchscreens, a central knob or voice control.

But third-party vehicle-satisfaction data shows this multitude of features and choices is a double-edged sword, pleasing tech-savvy buyers but confusing the less-technologically inclined, who prefer dedicated switchgear and overall less complexity.

In the past, cramming luxury cars to the brim with technology made sense because the features were new and were thought to add value for the consumer. Now, as the price of many technologies has declined as volume and scale has grown, that’s no longer the case.

Removing some of the content currently available in luxury models may be the wave of the future.

High cost and exclusivity are two key attributes of luxury, but a newer one is emerging – the “desire to get away from everyday life,” Murray says.

While some people need to be connected at all times, the ability to receive and view information in a more relaxed way could prove highly attractive to luxury consumers.

For those who can’t bear to be away from their Facebook newsfeed while driving, suppliers and auto makers are working on at least presenting in-vehicle information in a less overwhelming fashion.

“It’s all about the simplicity, the harmony, the balance,” says Lincoln’s Swek. “We’ve got so much coming at us so fast, and there’s so much access to information. It’s really important to take all that’s going on, find a way to package it that’s extremely simple, extremely easy to use, extremely dependable and looks beautiful.”

Soo Kang, Lincoln’s chief interior designer, also supports the “less-is-more” approach.

“Less decoration, less function, less noise – both sound and visual noise," she says at the recent WardsAuto Interiors Conference.

Another key reason to purchase a luxury vehicle is the sales and service experience. And that promises to remain a major differentiator between luxury vehicles and less-expensive models and brands.

“The philosophy for our product, which is the best or nothing, this is also valid for the entire ownership experience,” says Bernie Glaser, Mercedes-Benz USA vice president-marketing.

It’s why Mercedes places a greeter at the entrance to its stores and makes the service area viewable through a glass wall, Glaser says.

“To be treated well when they buy the vehicle but also when they get the vehicle serviced – that’s very important to these customers, because of course they’re comparing their retail experience in the automotive business to everything else they do,” says Dave Sargent, J.D. Power vice president-vehicle research.

How one is treated at a luxury dealership may become even more important as global emissions and fuel-economy mandates bring about an aerodynamically correct exterior look to vehicles and de-emphasize large, powerful engines that have been luxury selling points for decades.

As in the interior space, personalization will be key to the ownership of luxury vehicles, says Murray, with buyers asking: “Are you taking care of my needs?”

With maintenance intervals increasing, it’s more important than ever for auto makers to think up new, creative ways to keep customers happy when they do set foot in the showroom.

Weekly email updates to buyers, reminding them when the next oil change is due, is one option, Murray says. He sees salespeople as sociologists who need to be trained when, and when not, to approach a luxury shopper.

For his part, Lexus’ Mark Templin, group vice president and general manager, believes luxury always will have an edge over mainstream models for basic nuts-and-bolts reasons.

A luxury car now and in the future always will be “more solid, more quiet, more sturdy,” Templin says. “You can take all the badges off of them and have people drive them. You know which ones cost more.”

Others have a more daring vision for luxury in the future.

Flashing a serene image of the island of Majorca on the screen at the WardsAuto Interiors Conference, General Motors’ Marc Tarling, design manager-Cadillac Advanced Design Studio, asks: “Can you see the children in this? Exactly. I love my kids, but they’re not in my luxury experience.”

Could an automotive equivalent of a church crying room be around the corner? Dare to dream.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com