Performance is no longer the main territory on which car companies compete: these days nearly all cars drive, brake and handle so well that their owners will never come close to exploring their limits on ordinary roads. Safety and reliability are not differentiators either, for most cars have a fair claim to both. Owners may fall for the beautiful lines of their cars’ bodywork, but even the most infatuated petrolhead is not going to spend hours gazing at the object of his desire parked in the drive.
As the gap in quality between volume-makers and the so-called premium manufacturers has narrowed, cabins have become the biggest point of difference between brands. Stefan Sielaff, head of design at Bentley, puts it like this: “In the fight to appeal to the customer, the moment of first love may come from the external design. But it is the interior design that will create the bond of a long-lasting relationship.”
No brand better illustrates the power of a great cabin to change a carmaker’s fortunes than Audi. In the 1990s, Audis were seen as little more than tinselled Volkswagens, barely considered comparable to Mercedes and BMWs. All that changed when Audi’s interiors suddenly stole a march on their previously more upmarket rivals, becoming admired for their fit and finish, and the sophistication of their interfaces. A former Audi designer says that the investment in cabins paid off because customers sensed through even small things, like the way a dashboard meets the shutline of a door, the precision with which the car was built.
Audi continues to set standards. The stunningly executed, almost minimalist, cabin of the new TT Coupé is focused on what it calls the “virtual cockpit” system. A 12.3-inch high-resolution LCD screen replaces both conventional dials and the central stack screen. It puts all the information in front of the driver, who can switch between digitally rendered dials and “infotainment” functions, such as navigation. Mercedes, forced to raise its game, has caught up, though it has followed a different path. Its cabins are much flashier and more opulent than Audi’s. But there is innovation too. The instrument panel and central display of the new E-Class are formed from two horizontally merged 12.3-inch screens. They are made to look, according to Mercedes, as if they are hovering in space. Touch-sensitive buttons on the steering wheel control the entire infotainment system with a finger swipe.
Despite the excellence of the user interface, BMW has recently lost ground to its German rivals. Matteo Fini, a car-industry expert at IHS, a consultancy, says these things are often cyclical. “BMW were good, but their cabins underwent cost-cutting and fell behind. Never cut costs on interior design – the customer experience is too critical.”
BMW’s new 7-Series flagship, however, shows signs of a return to form, particularly if some of its features find their way into lesser models. Materials are of the highest quality and there is sophisticated ambient lighting everywhere. The star of the show is an all-new “head-up display” which projects speed, turn-by-turn navigation and warning messages onto the front window on the driver’s side.
However, if there is an analogy to be drawn with Audi’s achievements in the past decade, it may be Volvo today. When its new XC90 SUV was launched last year there was praise for the refinement of the whole vehicle, but rave notices were reserved for its cabin. Fini says that under its new Chinese ownership – Volvo was sold by Ford to the upstart Geely in 2010 – the Swedish firm had to show it could restore a brand that had languished.
Last year, Volvo’s Robin Page was named automotive interior designer of the year by a panel of his peers. Among the things which make the XC90’s cabin stand out is the very deliberate attempt to use a different design language from the German premium makers, who tend to emphasise sportiness, darker colours and polished aluminium. Page, who came to Volvo from Bentley, says that he wanted it to provide a “taste of Sweden”, by which he means Scandinavian design – “relaxed, architecturally clean and intelligent”.
It is indeed a beautiful cabin. Many functions are intuitively controlled from the large, portrait-shaped touch-screen which does not dominate. Volvo has chosen to reorient it because that’s what people are used to when they read. Page says that he wanted to make the most of natural materials without twisting them into unnatural shapes. There is lots of fine leather over the surfaces, satin-finish walnut and little aesthetic treats, such as a solid-crystal gear lever, which add a touch of playfulness. Page has set out to deliver “calmness and serenity to the driving experience”. He has succeeded, and customers have noticed: sales in America are up by nearly a third on the previous year.
At the rarefied end of the market occupied by Bentley, craftsmanship and plentiful use of natural materials are expected by customers, but a revolution is under way there too. Sielaff is working on a concept of “new luxury”. The aim is to use partnerships with tech, electronics and materials science companies to give Bentley exclusive use of some new technologies for two to three years. The cabin of the gorgeous Speed 6 concept sports coupé shows the direction of travel. Many of the elements, such as hollowed-out, knurled indicator stalks that cannot be milled or cast, are produced using 3D printing. Among the finishes, traditional polished walnut will compete with “quilted” wood and stone veneer just 0.1mm thick.
Despite the demands of technology, Sielaff does not see ever-bigger screens as the way forward, partly because of their detrimental effect on dashboard design, partly because “luxury customers” don’t want to be bombarded with information overload. Looking further ahead, Bentley is working on a fully autonomous car for 2035 that has a “lounge” interior with two sofas facing each other. The future Bentley even comes with a holographic “virtual butler” poised to respond to the owner’s needs. A joke? Sielaff isn’t letting on. The serious point is that the revolution in cabin design has only just begun.