Car interiors undergo radical transformation

For long designed to evoke aeroplane and racing cockpits or the wood and leather of gentlemen’s clubs, car interiors are only now shaking off their old-world looks. But a radical transformation is at last under way, reports Guy Bird

New attitudes to car interiors are changing vehicle insides like never before. This is partly due to an increasing desire from car design bosses to hire more product design-trained staff who, it is hoped, will attract younger customers. It’s also one of the few areas where car brands can differentiate their products.

‘Design is the last great differentiator,’ says General Motors veteran product czar Bob Lutz. ‘There is no leverage in the other areas any more. Once you’ve owned a car for a few months you don’t look at the exterior so much. The interior is different. If you can’t bear to activate that blower switch because of the noise it makes when you turn it, you’ll hate the whole car in three years’ time.’

Car interiors are also changing because new design-enabling technology is making traditional car signifiers – like gear knobs and hand brakes – redundant. Combined, these influences are shifting 21st century car interiors away from the clichéd categories of either a gentleman’s club on wheels or a racing cockpit. Shiro Nakamura, chief creative officer of Nissan, is promoting these new influences. ‘Car interiors used to be only influenced by sports cars, but the Nissan Cube’s interior is more influenced by architecture and the living room,’ he says.

The Cube is already a sales hit in Japan because of an unusual, asymmetric boxy exterior and a huge, versatile interior space within a vehicle footprint little bigger than a Nissan Micra. The design cues are not about going fast or looking sumptuous, but about space and simplicity with equal billing for driver and passengers. Seats are bench-like, windows large for a clear view and the dashboard functional and uncluttered. The second-generation version will be sold worldwide from late 2009, promising greater interior sophistication. It will be far removed from old-school wood and leather clichés.

Even Jaguar, that bastion of those traditions, has tried to ring the changes. The new XF Coupe’s interior offers modern straight-grain oak wood trim – as an alternative to burr walnut – and matte brushed aluminium rather than chrome. It also boasts an automatic gear selector more akin to a dial on an upmarket hi-fi system instead of the conventional stick and knob. Alongside a small electric parking brake button to replace the large hand brake, it makes for a modern and clean-looking centre transmission tunnel.

Brands with smaller budgets are working harder at making the surfaces touched most often – steering wheels, door handles and switches – feel better. Cheaper synthetic materials such as plastic and rubber can now be surfaced in more interesting ways than the familiar ‘orange peel’ effect. Mazda, for example, is working with UK-based Flotek International to create surfaces for dashboards and floor wells that mimic the ripple effect of sand dunes and can wrap around contours without image distortion. Its Hakaze concept is a good example.

The future of car interiors should offer a less cluttered space whatever the material. Slimmer seats, still incorporating safety features, are on their way to free up interior space and banish La-Z-Boy-style fat seats to history. Ambient lighting – beloved in architecture and interior housing design – is starting to be used on cars. Mini is leading the way with indirect lighting effects that can change colour by flicking a ceiling switch. Most prestige brands are set to follow its lead. Huge panoramic fixed-roof sunroofs are also growing because of their ability to flood small cabins with natural light and create a feeling of space.

The proliferation of knobs and buttons could soon be dramatically reduced, as well. The Saab 9-X BioHybrid and AeroX concepts still feature wraparound driver-focused dashboards, but the switch count has been drastically cut compared to current production models.

Audi’s close-to-production Metroproject concept shown last year previewed another way of doing this. The car is opened not by a key, but by a mobile phone. The phone slots into a hole above the gearstick to enable the user’s music, satnav, video and contact data to be accessed via the steering wheel controls and the car’s info screen.

Further ahead, Nintendo Wii-style systems that recognise human gestures within the cabin and, eventually, cars that drive themselves via GPS and sensors and ‘talk’ to each other to avoid crashes will negate the need for steering wheels or even seats all facing in one direction. By then, the notion of car interiors looking like living rooms on wheels will not seem so fanciful – and the classic car interior sporting a map pocket and a bit of wood really will be ancient history.

The British International Motor Show is at Excel London from 23 July to 3 August

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