Small-car interiors no longer are an afterthought.
To appeal to cost-conscious customers who want big-car amenities in small packages, automakers are empowering their designers and suppliers to rethink small-car interiors.
The results -- a combination of style, efficiency and value -- could set a trend for the industry. The trick is to make downsized small-car features, such as seats, look as comfortable and inviting as the same features in larger cars. And suppliers must pull this off without a big price tag. It's no easy task.
Some stars of the Frankfurt auto show last month -- including the Ford Evos, Audi A2, Volkswagen Up, BMW i3 and Mercedes-Benz B class -- offered a tentative glimpse of their creators' design philosophy for the next five years or so.
The Evos is a case in point. With its thin-profile seats, knob-free instrument panel and stylish center console, the car's interior looks spacious for a compact.
The new design approach "helps us to get a cleaner look for the interior and a roomier feel," says Ernst Reim, chief of interior design for Ford of Europe. "That is very, very important -- especially in small cars."
In effect, a vehicle such as the Evos offers useful feedback to Ford's interior suppliers. The seats in the Evos, for example, "are a summary of what suppliers have shown us over the last two years," Reim says.
With that in mind, Automotive News asked key suppliers for a preview of the products they are developing for small-car interiors. Here's what the suppliers said:
-- SEATS: Suppliers are developing thin-profile seats that are lighter, give rear-seat passengers more room and have fewer parts.
At the Frankfurt show, Faurecia introduced the Performance Seat, a lightweight seat designed for small cars. The seat substitutes a composite material for steel, and the exterior surface acts as its frame.
The seat dispenses with thick foam cushions; instead, the seat back flexes to accommodate the passenger's weight and posture.
Magna International Inc. and Johnson Controls Inc. also have developed thin-profile seats, but automakers have been reluctant to adopt them because some consumers say they look uncomfortable. Magna and Johnson Controls say, though, that the seats are just as comfortable as thick seats.
Although the Ford Evos has thin-profile seats, Ford is not ready to put them into production, Reim says. But the seats in the next Fusion will be slimmer.
"There is a lot of development going on to reduce the size of the seat," Reim says, "but you won't have exactly the look and style [of the Evos seats] because it's too expensive."
-- STORAGE: In North America's small-car sector, automakers are trending toward vehicles with interiors that proved popular in European models such as the Opel Zafira and Renault Scenic.
Johnson Controls showcased such an interior with its ie3 demonstration vehicle, an interior concept for a small electric car. For extra storage, the concept's instrument panel is topped by a mesh cover that conceals a bin.
To create more storage space, the audio system's speakers have been removed from the doors. Instead, the vehicle's roof acts as a speaker with the aid of transducers that vibrate the headliner.
Tom Gould, Johnson Controls' director of industrial design for North America, says the technology is practical. "We are really trying to produce concepts that can go into production very soon," he says. "These are near-term solutions."
-- INSTRUMENT PANEL: Future instrument panels will be smaller and simpler, with fewer knobs and buttons. This might be surprising, given the increasing complexity of infotainment systems. But the button-free instrument panel of the Evos offers some clues. Primary functions such as the radio, climate control and infotainment screen are controlled via voice control or buttons on the steering wheel.
Controls for secondary functions -- which include adjustments for the Evos' brakes, suspension and hybrid powertrain -- are on the driver's armrest and floor console. Reim says this allows Ford to shrink the instrument panel and create a more spacious cockpit.
Visteon Corp. has designed a climate control unit that can be stored under the floor. The system requires no ducts in the instrument panel for hot or cold air. Instead, air flows out of the headliner around the heads of the occupants.
Without climate control hardware or air ducts, the instrument panel shrinks considerably.
Motorists "want maximum space for their dollar," says Richard Vaughn, Visteon's global leader of corporate innovation. "We want to make an instrument panel that is as small as possible."
-- ANOTHER POSSIBILITY: Hand gestures could be used to control onboard telematics. Microsoft's Xbox Kinect gaming system uses movement recognition sensors to control figures onscreen. Such technology could be adapted for vehicles. For example, an occupant could adjust radio volume by flipping a hand up and down, or change stations by moving a hand side to side.
Which concepts will filter into production cars? Reim says the Evos' steering wheel, instrument cluster and infotainment screen will form the basis for a new version of Sync.
Likewise, the next-generation Ford Fusion will feature thin-profile seats, although not as skinny as those in the Evos.
As for the other concepts listed above, the suppliers say they don't have production contracts yet. But brutal competition in the small-car sector seems likely to force the pace of innovation.