Automakers think they have the outside of their cars looking good. Now they are competing to create better interior designs.
The trend is driven by two factors, auto designers say. One is that people spend more time in their cars. The second factor is that people want the same high quality of design and materials in their cars as they have in their homes.
"Creating a better interior ambience is important because people cannot drive fast on today's congested roads," said Murat Gunak, Volkswagen Group's design director.
"People spend a lot more time in their cars waiting in traffic, so they have time to look around and notice the inside of their cars."
On the 2006 Passat sedan, VW has integrated the color and style of the instrument panel and door panels so they appear as a single unit that envelops the car's occupants. VW also is using better-quality materials and fabrics in the Passat.
Peugeot is working on interior design innovations. Owners of the new 1007 small minivan can pull out and change interior trim pieces such as the instrument panel air vents or the seat inserts.
"You can modify the interior to taste by replacing smaller trim pieces with different colored pieces," said Aude Brille, project manager for the Peugeot 1007. "Young people like to personalize car interiors that way."
Designers agree that lighting is playing an increasing role in improving interior ambience.
"Special lighting effects can improve people's feeling of well-being inside a car," said Stefan Sielaff, director of DaimlerChrysler AG's interior competence center.
DaimlerChrysler offers indirect lighting incorporated into the headliner on its Mercedes-Benz CLS, E and S class. The feature allows certain front interior lights to be dimmed without affecting the amount of light in the rear of the car.
BMW's 2006 7 series features illuminated strips in the door panels that make it easier to find switches. At the same time, the subtle lighting gives the car a more relaxed feeling.
To make interiors more comfortable, carmakers are replacing plastics with traditional materials such as leather, wood and fabrics on seats, door panels and instrument panels.
"Quality and craftsmanship will rule interior design," said Moray Callum, Mazda's design director.
Gilles Vidal, Citroen's head of concept cars, spoke of "tactileness and coherence of materials" as being extremely important.
But beautiful interiors will never become more important than eye-catching exteriors.
Said DaimlerChrysler's Sielaff: "Before potential customers can appreciate a car's interior, they first have to fall in love with a car's exterior design."