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Car interiors evolving, intended to delight consumers

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From pop-up navigation systems and music storing hard drives to self-heating cup warmers _ carmakers are emphasizing interior design in a bid to make their vehicles stand out in a homogenous and crowded market.

Designers at this week's North American International Auto Show said that customers now expect more from an interior, including at least some high tech gadgetry and other extras, whether they are buying a luxury car or an entry-level vehicle.

Mike Jackson, chief executive officer of AutoNation Inc., the largest U.S. automotive dealer group, said that so many carmakers offer cutting-edge exteriors that there is parity in quality and interiors offer an opportunity to stand out from the pack.

``If you don't have a first-rate interior, the consumer is so mobile and has so many choices, you're going to lose them, and I think everybody understands that,'' he said. ``It's the design, the layout, the functionality and ease of use.''

Added Laurens van den Acker, general manager of Mazda Motor Corp.'s design division: ``What you could get away with maybe 10, 15 years ago is putting you out of business today.''

The inside extras can run the gamut, from ambient or LED lighting to USB ports in sound systems to cup holders that can heat or cool drinks. Designers are also looking at replacing plastic with softer materials and improving seating quality.

Michael Robinet, vice-president of global forecast services for Northville-based CSM Worldwide, an auto industry consulting company said that adults are leading more sophisticated lives and want at least a small part of that change to be reflected in their cars.

``The expectations for interior execution are that much higher today,'' said Dave Rand, executive director of interior design for General Motors Corp.

``Everybody knows that this is the game in town, to do better interiors, and it's also driven by the expectations of the customers who know what's out there,'' he added.

Jackson said the Big 3 U.S. automakers, particularly GM, are stepping up their game this year when it comes to high-quality interiors.

``They've gone from third world to world class in a very short period of time,'' said Jackson, whose dealerships include just about every manufacturer.

Peter Lawlis, now the director of design for Cadillac exteriors, was in charge of a major interior redesign of the CTS that was introduced at the show.

Some high-tech wizardry can be found inside the CTS, which will be available in the fall as a 2008 model, such as integrated iPod capability and a hidden navigation screen that rises into view when needed.

Alongside that technological power, GM is touting its more prosaic ``cut-and-sew'' interior process that it says uses advanced technology to eliminate gaps and seams in coverings for CTS components such as the instrument panel, centre console and door trim that are cut, sewn and wrapped by hand.

``At the end of the day, it's a balance of those two things,'' Lawlis said. ``You want to get in the car and feel comfortable, feel welcome.''

Ford Motor Co. fired the latest volley in the car-electronics wars on Sunday when it announced Sync, an in-dash networking system for autos codeveloped by Microsoft Corp. that will be available in a dozen 2008 models.

Among other things, Sync allows drivers, using either voice recognition or steering wheel controls, to listen to their IPods and all other digital music players or hear messages that were converted to audio after being sent as text to their cell phones. Company officials said it probably will be an option that costs less than US$1,000.

Although many electronic amenities are too pricey to be offered on entry-level vehicles, there can be a trickle-down effect if there is strong consumer demand for a feature that is initially available only on more expensive models, Rand said.

``Just because you cannot afford a more expensive car doesn't mean you don't desire for it,'' said van den Acker. ``So it's always been our challenge to give people an accessible vehicle and an affordable vehicle, but really surprise and delight them in the process.''

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Car interiors evolving, intended to delight consumers
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