General Motors Raising the Bar for Interiors

Buick Key Fob

If I may appropriate a line from John Edwards's speech from the 2004 Democratic National Convention, I am here to tell you that, in terms of GM interior design, "hope is on the way."

No automaker's automotive and truck interiors are more synonymous with poor design and materials, dubious aesthetics, and outright cheesiness than GM's. But that is all about to change.

GM is reaching the final stages of a Bob Lutz-directed, multi-year master plan to remake its interiors. We saw the first, tentative results in cars like the Buick LaCrosse, where for the first time, a GM car featured mathematically modeled interior panel pieces with very tight tolerances, even if the materials and the aesthetics were still far from world-class. And then with the new large SUVs that GM rolled out last year, we saw not only pleasing, modern design but also good ergonomics and high-quality materials. As I drove our Four Seasons Chevy Suburban—our handsome big black beast—to northern Michigan over the holidays, I happened to glance over into the cabin of a last-generation Suburban that I passed on Interstate 75. It was amazing to remember how the blocky, chunky, plasticky instrument panel so gracelessly presented itself to the vehicle’s occupants, with absolutely no regard for the way its outside edges interacted with the door glass. It was like the driver was sitting in front of a 20-year-old computer gameboard.

But I digress. The revelation that I want to share is that GM is finally embracing design as its way out of the gutter of American automotive opinion.

Happily, the company is no longer relying solely on exterior designs to make this happen. GM's interior designers finally have been unleashed and no longer will be handicapped by cost-cutters to the degree that they've been in the past. "We are looking at our interiors as more of an architectural environment," says Dave Rand, Executive Director of GM Design Interiors, "than just as an instrument panel [combined with other components]. We’ve reached a point with our interiors where we actually have something to talk about. We’ve told you [journalists], give us some time, I promise, I promise, I promise. It's nice to be at a point where we don’t have to promise anymore."

Instead of empty promises, GM is delivering, in vehicles like the Cadillac CTS sedan and Chevy Malibu that debuted this month at the Detroit show, and in the Cadillac SRX interior face-lift that’s already on the market. To drive home the point about what it’s been up to, GM recently hosted "interior salons" for media in Detroit, Los Angeles, and New York, bringing along styling bucks, sketches, fabric and leather samples, seats, and whole interiors from its studios. The evidence on display was very encouraging.

STEERING WHEEL WANDS You know the ubiquitous turn-signal/cruise control wand that has plagued GM vehicles for years? The one that maintained its basic shape from Chevys to Cadillacs and which was such an anachronism no matter how much leather they wrapped around it? It's headed to its grave. GM actually has modern, multi-function, beautifully designed steering wheel wands on the way, like the one in the accompanying photograph.

KEYS AND KEY FOBS Keys and key fobs have been a serious GM weakness for years. The corporation was the last, I believe, to switch to a single key to operate both the ignition and the exterior locks, and even today virtually every GM vehicle is still operated by an ugly, cheap, light, flimsy black plastic key that’s invariably attached to an ugly, cheap, flimsy, black plastic key fob with raggedy mold lines. Not exactly something to impress the person at the next barstool when you fling your keys down on the bar. In the not-too-distant future (probably the 2008 model year), GM keys will begin to mimick those from European and Japanese manufacturers, with well-crafted key fobs that have some heft and substance to them and that feel good in the hand and look good resting on your kitchen counter. GM is also playing around with technology that would link key fobs to cell phones and display messages on the fobs themselves, like "check oil" or "oil change."

RADIOS, HVAC, AND CENTER STACKS You might have seen some variation of GM’s most recent new corporate radio and HVAC faceplate (pictured here) in recent Saturns and Chevys. It’s a handsome and modern enough design that seems to have been inspired partly by recent Honda and Mazda efforts. This components set, known within GM as "Black Tie," is "serving its time," according to GM interior designer Kate Zak, "and serving it well, but we are moving toward integrated center stacks, as Black Tie is too rigid. We have much more flexibility now, and there's no need to do everything on the backside [of the instrument panel] from scratch." This will give GM a greater ability to fashion center stacks appropriate to different brands, but with similar components where the consumer has no interface. While swooping, well-integrated center stacks have been a given in most other cars for years, they are a relatively new—and long overdue—development for GM.

SEATING Jim Gasparotto, Creative Designer for Color and Trim, showed off a new seat, soon to be offered in the Cadillac Escalade Platinum model, that uses semi-aniline, furniture-grade leather rather than automotive-grade leather. The difference? Furniture-grade leather has a very low amount of finish, so it’s more susceptible to staining, but it wears like a high-quality leather sofa. Contrast this with most automotive-grade leather, which is nearly as resistant to staining and wear as vinyl, and not much less unpleasant to touch and smell. "We now have five grades of leather at GM," says Rand. GM is also looking to the furniture and fashion industries for interior fabrics.

Lest I overstate the case, GM still has a long way to go before its interiors are world-class. "First, we’ll do the best domestic interiors," says Rand, "[and then the goal is to do] globally competitive interiors." You need look no farther than the Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky cabins to see pleasing designs let down by so-so ergonomics and incredibly shoddy material quality, and those failures probably won’t be addressed until the second-generation models. The new Saturn Aura and Chevy Malibu interiors are ten times better than what GM had, but they still fall short of Volkswagen, Honda, and Mazda.

GM's design resurrection is still a work in progress, but hope is on the way.

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