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Industry uses rich fabrics, woodgrains to help boost sales

The Ford GT will feature an industry-first interior made of Azdel SuperLite, a glass fiber/polypropylene compound.

By Eric Mayne / The Detroit News

Greg Bernas is an automotive engineer with a master’s degree in science. And he works at the gap.

Not the clothing store.

Bernas, an executive program manager for Toyota Motor Co.p., strives full-time to shrink the fissures that define the “fit and finish” of an automotive interior — such as the gaps between the glove box door and dashboard, or between the cover of your cupholder and the center console.

The execution of such minor details has become a key quality yardstick for vehicle interiors. The narrow, symmetrical crevices that surround audio and climate controls and separate door panels are increasingly a testament to an automaker’s claim to excellence.

The smaller the groove, the more satisfied customers are.

With the overall quality gap between automakers shrinking, the automotive interior has become a new battleground for companies to conquer and distinguish themselves.

“The holy grail would be totally flush conditions from part to part, with zero gap,” said Bernas, who works at Toyota’s technical center in Ann Arbor.

Toyota traditionally has led the pack when it comes to precision-engineered cabins. But Detroit automakers are redoubling efforts and spending more to close the gap with Asian and European rivals.

Steady improvement

Based on problems reported during the first three months of ownership — annoying instrument panel squeaks to unsightly carpet flaws — vehicle interior quality has shown steady industrywide improvement, according to J.D. Power and Associates. From 1998-2003, vehicle interior quality has jumped 29 percent, but the improvement among domestic nameplates has been the most dramatic.

Among Detroit automakers, interior problems fell 31.2 percent — from 25.0 per 100 models in 1998, to an industry-low 17.2 per 100 models last year.

European automakers recorded a 23.2 percent improvement during the same time period, from 30.6 problems per 100 models to 23.5; while Asian brands improved by 21.9 percent.

Toyota and its luxury brand, Lexus, remain the established leaders. At this month’s Chicago Auto Show, Toyota drew a new line in the sand for its competitors. A very fine line.

On its 2004 Solara, which was developed and engineered entirely in the United States, Toyota promises to narrow the gap of interior parts from 1.5 millimeter to 0.5 millimeter on the previous model.

“Such close tolerances result in a look and a feel of extreme high quality and refinement, which, of course, is important,” said Don Esmond, senior vice president and general manager of Toyota’s U.S. sales division. “Even more important, however, is that such precision results in a car that will retain its structural integrity over many years.”

Aim is superior interiors

While not quite on a par with, say, a gain in fuel economy of one mile per gallon, a 1-mm gap decrease is “a fairly significant reduction,” Bernas said.

General Motors Corp. and other competitors are unfazed.

“Admittedly, we’re a little bit behind the Japanese,” said Bob Lutz, vice chairman and product development chief at General Motors Corp. “But we’re learning, and our suppliers are learning.”

The proof, Lutz said, will be revealed this fall with the debut of the Buick LaCrosse sedan.

“The LaCrosse represents our first serious effort at doing an interior that is comparable to the best Japanese interiors,” he said, promising its rich-looking fabrics and woodgrains will raise the bar for Buick.

Lutz wants Buick to become the “American Lexus,” offering premium quality at more affordable prices — a strategy Mazda Motor Corp. has also embraced.

Lexus tops quality report

The Lexus brand has topped the J.D. Power interior quality report four of the last six years. But the reigning model champ — the Mazda B-Series pickup — is the product of a strategy to offer high style for a low price. The Japanese automaker is taking the same approach with newer offerings such as the RX-8 sports coupe.

“Just because you’re spending “only” $30,000 on a car — which is not a small chunk of money — doesn’t mean you can’t get a quality interior” said Mazda spokesman Jeremy Barnes. “The interior is where the buyer will spend 100 percent of their time in the car.”

The amount of money and time spent crafting and fine-tuning vehicle interiors is increasing. With motorists taking more time to commute — U.S. rush-hour travel takes three times longer than it did in 1982, the Texas Transportation Institute says — automakers see an opportunity to connect with customers.

And they approach the opportunity with such seriousness that designers such as Marek Reichman refer to interiors as “environments.”

Affecting ‘the environment’

“Sometimes we’re able to affect the environment, or most of the time, with the color of materials,” said Reichman, Ford Motor Co.’s director of design for interior strategy. “But some of the time it’s from a three-dimensional standpoint.”

“You’ll be able to see from the Mustang interior, in terms of the quality of materials, fit and finish and differentiation of materials, you can see — compared to the old product — how much we’re investing in that interior,” Reichman said, noting Ford last year tripled its investment in interior development throughout the company. The automaker does not, however, disclose the figure.

“The new (Mustang) is very exciting, very appealing, a lot of different materials, a lot of tactile surfaces, very sporting,” said Reichman. “The investment has come, not only in those materials, but also in the fit and finish and the processes we’ve used to develop those materials. So it’s going to squeak less, last longer.”

Ford is pioneering new material choices. Its Mercury brand is featuring a soft, faux suede in the 2005 Mariner — a cousin of the Ford Escape scheduled to debut this fall.

At the other end of the economic scale, the $140,000 Ford GT boasts an industry-first use of Azdel SuperLite, a glass fiber/polypropylene compound. Normally used to make roof liners, the GE Plastics product will form the entire interior of Ford’s new 500-hp supercar.

“Right now, Ford’s got it on interiors,” Lutz said. “I think everybody’s getting it.”

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