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It's The Interiors, Stupid
Jerry Flint
Forbes.com

A few years ago, I was at a Detroit auto show looking at an exotic prototype. It was a strange-looking thing, but the word was that General Motors was going to build it. The interior of that show vehicle was different, exciting and loud. I expressed my admiration to one of the interior designers standing there. "That interior could make the car something special," I said.

The designer shrugged sadly. "They probably wouldn't use it. They would take the interior 'off the shelf,' " he said. It turns out that designer was right.

Another time I was talking to an important General Motors (nyse: GM - news - people ) executive when he mentioned "the coal mine." It took me a bit of time to figure out that he was describing the interior of his own GM cars. The coal mine: universally dark and dismal.

I also remember when my wife said to me, "No one spends an hour or two walking around looking at the outside of her car. But we spend countless hours on the inside."

In short, interiors count. And that's where Detroit--GM, Ford Motor (nyse: F - news - people ) and DaimlerChrysler's (nyse: DCX - news - people ) Chrysler division--have badly lagged the foreign competition. I'm happy to report, however, that there are signs the U.S. manufacturers are finally getting the message.

Look at the new Chrysler 300C sedan, which just went on sale. This car has a well-executed dashboard, and the fit and finish of interior materials are much closer to world-class than almost anything else from the domestics.

Wait until you see new Ford Mustang this fall. It has been decades since I've seen a dashboard or an interior on an American car as polished and as sexy as that of the Mustang. Ford figures on selling 180,000 new Mustangs a year, but I think that they'll do better--lots better. The inside of Ford's new F-150 big pickup isn't bad either, though Ford took a lot of fire from Wall Street analysts on the higher production costs of this model. Ford also did a nice job--though a bit retro--on the interiors of the Lincoln Navigator and Aviator SUVs.

GM trails Ford and Chrysler in interiors. The coming Saab 9-7 sport utility has the first GM interior done in the U.S. that really satisfies Robert Lutz, GM's vice chairman and product czar. But Saab is a European nameplate, so the trick for GM is to transfer some of this pizzazz to its U.S. brands.

American designers shouldn't necessarily try to mimic European or Japanese interiors. Fit, finish and quality are important, but American cars should reflect what makes them uniquely American. Today's U.S. cars have lost all that bold, brash attitude of the cars of the 1950s and 1960s.

The standard colors of American interiors today are mouse gray and mud brown, with some black thrown in on the luxury models. I say we should ban mouse gray and mud brown.

I also say we should forget leather. Are you shocked? Leather has become boring unless it's orange or red, but we've forgotten how to do that except at some outlandish price. We have wonderful textiles today. They are long-lasting and colorful. Stop killing all those cows.

And why can't the interior seats, sides, floor mats and the dash match the color of the exterior paint? When I was a boy I would go visit Ford's assembly plant in Dearborn. I still remember the red seats dropping into the red car and the blue seats dropping into the blue car and the tan seats dropping into the white car, and they didn't even have computers back then to figure out how to match up all the pieces.

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Exactly right! Jerry Flint makes a lot of sense and that's why I enjoy reading his stuff. I agree, ban the mouse-fur gray and "neutral" (now there's an exciting color) interiors! I want blue, green, gold, red, white, teal, chocolate brown, maybe even '67 Oldsmobile yellow, anything but gray!

I understood that Detroit manufacturers have outsourced most/all of their interior work to places like Lear and Magna, so maybe they don't know how to build a good interior any more? Even when they try - I'm thinking of the colors used in the Thunderbird interior, or the red in Sunfires a few years back, or the white in Cavalier convertibles - they can't make it look right. They plop the color into a gray/black interior and it sticks out like a sore thumb.

I imagine it is mostly due to cost cutters. In the early days of the industry, color-coordinated interiors were rare. In the 40s and 50s it began to happen as a way to differentiate your product and only bottom-line models had the basic gray or brown. But in the 70s and 80s when people started buying imports which usually only came with gray interiors, the cost analysts probably argued that it no longer mattered. Well, maybe now it does again.
 

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I was disappointed with the equinox interior. I was really thinking of getting that pretty little SUV but the interior was so bad I couldn't do it.

The center console was horrible and the silver on the center was so cheap I couldn't stand it.

Photographed well though.

I'm tired of the mouse fur too..I think either leather or leatherette like in BMW would be fine.

Suede would be cool with leather like in the awesome CTS V series..

Now thats a cool GM interior for sure.

The new C6 vette is pretty good

The Envoy I have is pretty nice.

The C5Z06 I own is not so great but I could care less. The cars a blast. The Z06 seats lack a bit of side bolstering in my opinion but I may swap in a set of sport seats if I get around to it..
 

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I agree the interior is more important than most people think, but I disagree about the comment about the interior of the upcoming mustang being so good it may lead to more of it being purchased.
I have previously owned 2 camaros and one Trans am. I thought to myself that I would never purchase a Mustang. However, now that I'm looking at new cars and new Camaro's and Firebirds aren't available, I have seriously thought about the new mustang. I like the look of the exterior, but the interior is what is going to cause me not to purchase it.
When I see pictures of it, I think it looks TOO much like a car from the 60's. Some exterior styling cues from past models can be good...but to me the interior of the mustang looks like a car that my 50 and 60 year old parents would think is cool. Not to my surprise, most of my friends in their 20's and early 30's think the same of the interior as I do...and when I showed a picture of it to my parents (who are 54 and 60) they both loved it.
Now I'm sure there are going to be some people in thier 20's that like the new Mustang interior...but I think Ford went too far in the retro look. My guess is that they will get a lot of the "baby boomers" loving this car because it reminds them so much of their youth, but they are going to turn off a lot more younger buyers than they think.
 

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Umm.....I've driven and ridden in plenty of Toyohondas and guess what you see in them? Mouse grey and tan.....plastic. Plastic that feels curiously like....plastic. Like in all non-super expensive cars. Go figure.

I don't know anyone that doesn't spend 99.9 percent of their time in a car looking out a window.
 

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Originally posted by ab348@May 31 2004, 10:28 PM
I agree, ban the mouse-fur gray and "neutral" (now there's an exciting color) interiors! I want blue, green, gold, red, white, teal, chocolate brown, maybe even '67 Oldsmobile yellow, anything but gray!
meh, to each their own. i prefer a simple, plain interior any day. i think i'd eventually get sick of red or teal interior (thanks but no thanks, sunfire!). i don't like neutral brown, but i'm fine with an all-grey dash. the current trend of dark (charcoal) grey dash, door panels and console with lighter grey trim and panels from the beltline up make any ****pit seem lighter and larger. but ALL one colour can be a little much. the current mustang interior, in black, is almost a black hole. it looks like a 1-piece moulded bucket. i need a little contrast! but not gold... puh-leeeze not gold!
 

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I just wish Chevy would at least attempt to make an exciting ****pit for a car. Not as a standard car but maybe as an option? If people wanna be boring, let them be boring, but let the rest of us have some fun.
 

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I for one am very tired of the ugly patterns in the cloth chosen by GM and others. Both my 2002 Envoy, and 2000 Camaro have a light grey cloth, but God forbid if they should just have one solid color. No...its got to have little blotches of darker grey. Plain ugly. Had a Chrysler Cirrus new in '96 that we upgraded to leather just because the standard interior cloth colors was so bad.

I think the new Mustang is probably right on. I still think a retro-inspired interior is much more fun than an interior that just never moved into the appropriate decade. My 00 camaro, while not retro, has a very late 70's feel.

I was looking at a Magnum today. Very cool white guages and very good looking inside.

My company car now is a Chrysler Sebring 4 door. While the interior is at least neutral, I had when car companies leave the top of the door (where my arm usually rests) as solid plastic. The Sebring is just hard plastic, no cushion, no soft vinyl...nothing. Even the 04 Sunfire I drove last week at least had a little padding under cloth.

The worst fabric colors of all time (as far as my driving experience) were my 96 Taurus that couldn't be tan, but more of a butterscotch color, with little blotches of a grey/blue color. BAD.
 

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I was in a co-workers Corolla and I was stunned to see how much hard plastic was in that car. Made our old Alero feel like a luxury car by comparision. Yes the Toyota plastic looked good but it felt real hard!
 

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Wasn't it Jerry Flint who wrote article after article about how Ford was going to bankrupt itself putting so much into the interior of the new F-150? (he thought it was insane that they were designing several completely unique interiors for their full size truck/SUV line, when GM gets by with one)
 

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:rolleyes: That Buick Velite interior looks world class, I can't
see how anyone else would think otherwise...
 

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This interior thing has been a problem for the last 10 years or so in my view. I find the cloth used on the seats of the 04 Malibu, Grand Prix, Equinox, base 300C, Neon, Sunfire, F-150 pickup to be the worst crap that car manufacturers have ever come out with. And it is even more amusing to find Car an Driver supporting this stuff like it was the greatest thing since sliced bread. This material is very harsh feeling to the touch, feels really cheap, attracts fuzz and debris like velchro and seems to carry a high amount of static charge. There is nothing at all luxurious about it whatsoever! And I am also sick and tired of the "black lung" or boring yawn inducing gray interiors that almost all car manufacturers put in cars these days. My 1987 Cutlass Salon has a sweet maroon, buckets seat interior with chrome side accents and some faux wood that most everyone seems to find pleasing. The biggest compliment is "don't make em like this anymore". Indeed they don't! And if GM, Dodge or Ford is going to insist on putting that terrible synthetic fake cloth in it's cars I certainly won't be purchasing there products any longer!
 

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I loved the Malibu and Equinox interior's. I thought they were pretty good, and lightyears above what they replaced.
No mention of the GTO in the article? Hrmmm. How about the XLR that was voted best interior?

GM is lagging? Sit in a Ford Taurus...tell me how high-class it is from the Malibu. Let me save you some time by saying the Taurus interior is horrible when compared the the Malibu. Crown Vic? new Focus? 2 good interiors in the F150 and Mustang as compared to great interiors in near every new Chevy car. The Aveo interior looked pretty good for its price.
The Nox interior was fantastic, I dont know what your expectaions on a $20k SUV were? I think the Nox has the best interior in its class, much better then the Vue and the
 

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Originally posted by bigals87z28@Jun 1 2004, 05:13 AM
GM is lagging?  Sit in a Ford Taurus...tell me how high-class it is from the Malibu.  Let me save you some time by saying the Taurus interior is horrible when compared the the Malibu.  Crown Vic?
The Taurus traces its roots back near 10 years. The Vic' almost 25. Hardly useful.

GM STILL has yet to come out with a class-leading interior. I don't know how the XLR won some award when every review ever written of it complaines about the cheap interior (for a ~70k vehicle). The only remotely passable interior they've yet to put in a mainstream product is the new Malibu, and even it's at the crappy end of the (very competative) segment. They claim the G6 will be better but we'll see - it looks like cheap opressive grey crap in the pics...

I haven't seen the Equinox but I've heard it's really good. Maybe it's the class-leader GMs been waiting for...
 

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Originally posted by bigals87z28@Jun 1 2004, 05:13 AM
2 good interiors in the F150 and Mustang as compared to great interiors in near every new Chevy car.
You've got to be kidding, right? The base Mailbu has one of the most dismal-looking interiors I've seen in years. The mid-level one is barely acceptable in tan, still looks pretty drab in gray. Plus they continued the GM Uglycloth (TM Regd.) tradition as started on the new Grand Prix (now thankfuly fixed) with patterned fabric that extends onto the headrests which just looks awful. And the top-end, with the perforated ultrasuede material on the seats, looks cheap right out of the box and with a little wear on it looks horrible. The problem with it is the lack of stitching patternson the seat cushions, which gives a stretched, wrinkly-looking appearance after only a short time.

I don't consider the Daewoos as Chevys so that isn't a fair comparison - they were obviously done by an entirely different group of designers using entirely different suppliers. My impression of them from a brief look is that they are going for an initial first impression with cheap chrome and fake-wood accents but that they will start to look tacky really quickly.
 

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I was disappointed when the Impala SS debuted. A unique vehicle with the theme that it would be in one color only-black. But the car was stuck with the same 2 colors for the interior-gray or tan. No black. Was it too much of a stretch to use the same interior color as in the Monte Carlo? Tan and gray are okay for minivans and SUV's but if the car is supposed to show off a little muscle, an ebony interior must be available.
 

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One thing I liked about most of the Japanese imports in the 1980's (Mazda GLC/323, 626, Honda Civic/Accord, Nissan Maxima) was the fact that you could actually set things on a shelf on the dashboard...a fairly large shelf that extended from the instrument cluster right across to the passenger side door, deep enough to accomodate a full-sized box of kleenex. With domestics, anything that you set on the dash would be likely to fall off during aceleration or cornering, while the ridges and lips on the dashboard shelf on the imports kept things secure.

I, for one, don't care about the colour of the interior...but I'd really like to have a dashboard shelf.
 

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Thanks for this terrific article. When did colour become too much to ask for? While manufacturers release brilliant new yellows, blues, and oranges for the exteriors we are stuck with mind-numbingly dull beiges, charcoals, and blacks. I remember when the Sunfires first came out they offered bright reds and blues in their interiors but that gave way to one single, depressing, charcoal colour. Is it any wonder so many young people are painting their dashboards today?
 

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The only vehicles I know of that have a different color interior are the Impala and 04 Dodge Caravan with there available blue. Of course Chevy had to ruin it by putting a black, unfinished steering wheel and column it it and I'm not sure if Dodge still has it on the 05's. I would at least like to see blue or red offered as an option on some of the higher end model offerings, even at extra charge so that we can enjoy our cars that much more. And I like fords' idea on offering a wood interior package on the Taurus. It adds some flair to an otherwise lacklustre interior.
 

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I agree with Jerry on this one. Interior design has to be GM's (and the other US makers) biggest overall weakness. The person who came up with the designs of the solid color with the little splotches of color all over needs to be shot. It may hide dirt and stains well but they're the fugliest material patterns I've ever seen.

The best (or worst) interior I've ever seen was on a 76' Lincoln Town Car. Green car with a dark green vinyl top. The interior was a BRIGHT emerald green. EVERTHING in that interior (carpet, seats, dash) was that color. You had to see it to believe it. From what I could tell it was all factory.
 
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