Changing gear

Critics say car interiors are uninspiring and formulaic. Anne Gardener looks at some new designs which are trying to break the mould

YOU know that old Bill Gates saying? The one about how if cars had kept up with the development of computers, by now we’d be speeding around town at a million miles a second or something? (eliciting the usual riposte that we’d also be crashing regularly in the same overpriced, boring cars). But there is something in that. Until recently, mainstream car interiors had not kept up with the pace of change and expectation in other consumer environments.

Fundamentally, we still have pedals to push, a wheel to yank, dials to read, and a window to peer out of. Technology aside, it seems to be the same as it always was – including the disappointing failure of a car interior to live up to the alluring promise of its exterior form: a sexy Calibra on the outside, a boring old Cavalier on the inside. Automotive industry observers admit that this mismatch has arisen because interior design teams often work in isolation from their exterior colleagues, and have traditionally been seen as the “poor relation”.

Much of the development work on interior components falls to engineering teams, what the automotive industry calls “tier-one suppliers” – smaller companies which supply large manufacturers like Ford with seats, door assemblies or instrument panels. These guys tend to be problem-solvers, not stylists, and are easily side-tracked by how much technology they can cram into the cab.

According to contemporary car designers, restrictions imposed by cost, weight, safety and ergonomics mean that more progressive designs tend to stay firmly stuck in concept cars. Mark Grix, UK design manager at GE Polymer Design Associates, a consultant to several major automotive manufacturers, confirms that “after safety, weight and cost are the biggest factors to consider. A manufacturer like Ford is looking for savings of tenths of a cent, and grams in weight reduction.”

Most car designers also express the view that successful interior designs are those that have been conceived totally in conjunction with the exterior, that represent the same values and imagery as the exterior form and communicate the excitement of the overall concept. Taisuke Nakamura, a Nissan designer currently studying at London’s Royal College of Art, emphasises this connection: “The most important thing is the originality of the concept for the car; you can’t discuss interior design without a concept for the whole car and an expression of the ‘space’.”

Hannah MacMurray, an industrial designer at Honda’s Wave Design Studio in Tokyo, agrees, offering an older concept example. “Bertone’s Marzal show car of 1967 exhibited at the Geneva Motor show is one that attracts me immensely: the interior is part of the outside, making the car a whole rather than a polar interior and exterior. The use of one material all over the interior allows the shapes and forms to glow and be independent, while [remaining] part of the same language. It’s fun and uninhibited without the use of colour… that’s the breakthrough.”

Nobuki Ebisawa, chief designer and manager at Honda Wave, also highlights simplicity and boldness as the most important qualities in developing an interior concept, and cites the compact construction of the Sixties BMW 2002 interior as one of his favourites: “It was so easy to understand the concept, and very functional at the same time.” Mainstream car interiors today are more sober and functional (some would say boring), and most designs get watered down on the road to production.

“Any flair is considered excessive, unnecessary and expensive,” says MacMurray. But dullness aside, we are relatively safe in a modern car interior in the event of a crash. Modern shock-absorbing materials, airbags, crumple zones, side-impact protection and seat belts all save lives and minimise injuries, but in turn can create limitations for a designer wanting to impose a characterful interior in a car.”

However, the experiences of engineers at GEPDA suggest that this need not be so. Grix says: “Automotive designers should consult material and design experts like us early on, because material options can offer greater opportunities in feel and appearance. Things that can’t be done with traditional techniques may be achievable through the use of new materials. Innovative use, together with the clever integration of components, can often provide weight and cost savings as well as the flexibility to update an interior regularly.”

Grix cites the New Beetle instrument panel as an example of this approach, as GEPDA was able to offer Volkswagen three custom-tailored grades of Noryl resin to construct elements of the front interior moulding, from the base of the windshield to below the steering column. A high level of material integrity across the board gives the interior better heat performance, longevity, fit and finish. (The New Beetle’s exterior fenders are also formed from injection-moulded Noryl GTX resin, that is 50 per cent lighter than steel.) Atsushi Maeda, a senior automotive designer specialising in interiors at Nissan’s Kanagawa headquarters, cites the New Beetle for “emphasising the charm of plastic”.

Product designers outside the automotive sector have proved that plastics can be beautiful (Authentics, Alessi, Apple). Grix thinks that large manufacturers are increasingly approaching the car interior from a product design perspective: “Ford has produced some good exterior styles with the Ka, Focus, Puma and Cougar – bold, confident moves that have paid off. These at least have interiors that deliver some of the promise of the exterior.”

Volkswagen Audi interiors are regularly mentioned as examples of good design. Ebisawa says, “I like Audi interiors, especially the A3… very modern, not too strong, a sophisticated impression that seems quite usual at a glance but is well-designed.” And then there’s the much heralded Audi TT Coupé. A rare example, as the people at Audi themselves boast, of a “charismatic design” that successfully survived the “transition from drawing board to driveway”. The road to production is littered with anxious accountants and cautious committees, and this feat has been rightly celebrated. But many outside Audi have found the interior less exciting and less individualistic than its concept version.

Sure, it’s polished, efficient and comfortable (who would accept any less from such a car?), but has the “no-compromise approach” produced real innovation? MacMurray thinks not. “The Audi TT is by far the nicest interior out there, but that’s simply because everything else is so dreadful! Nowadays, when many interiors are so plasticky and occasionally offensive, the simple and logical organisation of an Audi TT interior gives solace to the eye and mind… However, it doesn’t challenge convention, it doesn’t offer a window on what the future of interiors could be… it is providing a service [that] everyone else is failing to deliver.”

But the desire for status and old fashioned values hasn’t entirely left us – witness the successful launch of the Jaguar S-Type and the Rover 75, both with interior designs which don’t entirely plumb the depths of retro styling, but produce strong evocations of a classic English look. Indeed, Grix regards the Rover 75 interior as stronger than its exterior; while Atsushi Maeda at Nissan describes “retro style” as “satisfactory but not fascinating”. Other commentators see these designs as a sure sign that the automotive industry is unsure of where to go next; only those insecure about the future continue to celebrate past glories.

As far as future trends are concerned, industry leaders point to further developments in the quest for greater lightness – both physical and visual, and the use of new materials – more consumer options in surface treatments, coloured plastics and metals, 3D and textured fabrics.

However, there are two powerful movements that will push designs forward, according to Nobuki Ebisawa at Honda Wave. The first is technology-led: “As Toyota has said, the car is becoming a kind of moving information terminal. Intelligent traffic systems, such as interactive navigation-systems and hand-held CPUs, will be introduced into car interiors just like audio systems were.” The second is consumer-led: “Consumers’ concern for interior style will increase in the future. People no longer express style in fashion alone, but in the context of a total lifestyle – like the interior of their home. In time, some consumers may consider the style and expression of their car interior to be more important than functionality.”

At the top of the market these trends are becoming apparent, but for the mass market, compromises on cost and efficiency still leave most of us aching for something better.

Anne Gardener is a partner at TKO

Latest articles