Interior Design is Key to Consumer Appeal
May 14, 2002

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When it comes to selling new cars, automakers are increasingly finding that while a vehicle's exterior design is "the bait, the interior is the hook."

That was the common sentiment today at a media breakfast that featured a panel of interior design executives from vehicle manufacturers and their suppliers. The importance of the interior is being magnified by more and more vehicle buyers who practically "live" in their cars, say these designers -- a trend that is expected to increase with new convenience items, sophisticated entertainment systems and even Internet access available in cars and trucks.

But this growing demand also poses significant challenges: What's the best trade-off between comfort and functionality? How do you design-in more hot consumer-driven technology like telematics without overwhelming the consumer or compromising safety? And, how is this all achieved at a price consumers are willing to pay?

Those are some of the questions that the executives addressed today -- and will be answering this week -- at the Automotive Interiors Show, which opens tomorrow morning (May 14) at 10 and runs through Thursday (May 16) at Cobo Center in Detroit.

Interiors play an increasingly important role not only in capturing first- time car shoppers, but especially in creating repeat customers. "The exterior is the bait. The interior is the hook," says Jeffrey Godshall, Senior Design Manager-Product Design Office for DaimlerChrysler Corp. "The interior is something you live with and hopefully grow to appreciate -- depending upon your experience."

Lorene Boettcher, Manager of Global Design at Seton, a leather supplier to the OEMs, said that BMW's mission, for example, was to have customers not only satisfied with their purchase, but to be so enthusiastic they buy again in the future and recommend the vehicle to their friends. "This means putting money where it belongs -- inside the car where the driver spends most of his time. Car buyers are making the choice to purchase vehicles with more design elements. Interiors that don't match up to the level of the exterior design fail the mark."

With so many different vehicles on the market, OEMs must ensure their vehicles stand out from the competition. Interior styling and design plays a key role in not only differentiating a brand but also providing features that meet customer needs within the various vehicle segments.

"Consumers are looking for vehicles with interiors that are stylish, safe, comfortable, durable and practical," says Larry Denton, President, Dow Automotive. "More and more people are calling for integrated technologies in vehicles. We believe that providing innovative content to vehicle interiors is the key challenge of the future."

The growing application of mobile phones, telematics and navigation systems adds another challenge in how to minimize driver distraction through design and ergonomics. However, Godshall feels the government could solve that problem very quickly. "It can pass a law that says cell phones and navigation aids can be used only when the car is in park, or only work with the key in the accessory position," he says.

Despite these challenges, technology also is allowing automotive interior designers to "have more fun with paint and textures," says Ralph Gilles, Director-Studio 3, DaimlerChrysler. "That opens the floodgates for all types of products." Gilles designed the interior of the Liberty a couple of years ago, which was intended to make a statement with interiors using high-contrast materials.

More interiors of that genre are coming in the future, based on the tone set by the Liberty. "We want to use colors and metallic looks to make sure the interior makes as much of a statement as the exterior."

Current and future materials and coatings technology are allowing designers to better incorporate what they term "tactile honesty." For instance, if a button or switch looks like metal, it should feel like metal; if an interior door panel looks like wood, it should feel like wood.

OEMs are looking to more and more integration, thus modules play an increasing role in cost and parts savings, and add design flexibility, as in the case of Lear's Common Architecture Strategy (CAS), introduced in concept form at the 2001 SAE Congress & Exhibition. "The exterior is the segue to the interior, and for all sales, this is where value will be increased," says John Phillips, Director-Industrial Design and Advanced Product Development, Lear Corp. "CAS can help commonize car lines within a brand to reduce cost while still providing differentiation and high consumer appeal."

Function capability, integration, modules and comfort for brands also must be designed with user familiarity in mind. "A good rule to follow is for consistency in things you find in every vehicle," says Terry Duncan, Design Manager-Product Strategies, Color Trim and Product Design, Ford Motor Co. "In Ford vehicles we try to be as consistent as possible, with, for example headlamp or cruise control location. The idea is that if you get into a Ford car or truck in the same family, you will know where the controls are located without having to search around. We want our vehicles to feel familiar and friendly to our customers."

For instance, in Ford vehicles, high-tech features are typically added to the center stack, or use level-three components such as rearview mirrors to incorporate fuel economy, temperature or compass electronics.

Duncan is convinced people will be bowled over by the "new breed of interiors" Ford will introduce in the new Navigator and Aviator at next year's North American International Auto Show in Detroit. "People will be shocked -- in a good way," he says.


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