After Ford Motor Co. unveiled its concept car, the Vertrek, at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit on Jan. 10, project manager Patrick Verhee pointed to the design cues inside the car: a floating instrument panel that hovers above the steering wheel, a hand-wrapped specialty leather of interior trim, the carbon fiber intended to give Vertrek a modern spirit.
This is to indicate where we see ourselves going, Verhee said. It's to indicate that we would like to do more with the architecture, and would like to see more wrapped parts.
Interior suppliers said they are seeing the same signals from across their customer base, not just at Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford. After a series of model years in which cost-cutting stripped interiors down to their bare essentials with hard plastic panels and trim North American automakers now are using both plastic and natural skins to wrap around consoles, adding foam to key touch points and incorporating color.
They're doing some things with contrast stitching with both [thermoplastic polyolefin] skins and with leather, said Dave Phillips, executive director of auto interiors business development for Johnson Controls Inc., whose interiors unit is in Plymouth, Mich.
They're using cut-and-sew, and wrapping parts, but they're being very selective to do it on parts where people will notice them and feel them, Phillips said.
Cut-and-sew in which a material such as a PVC or TPO skin is stitched onto its plastic substrate had fallen out of use in inexpensive to moderate-priced cars, but both car reviewers and car buyers noticed the difference and began logging complaints about cheap plastic interiors, said Maurice Sessel, senior vice president of engineering for International Automotive Components Group LLC, an interior supplier based in Dearborn, Mich.
Automakers wanted to improve their image and began introducing higher-grade materials. Manufacturing and engineering advancements began making it possible to produce those parts more efficiently, according to Phillips.
For instance, in a cross-section of interior parts, proprietary methods were developed to insert foam into the parts as an element of an automated production. That opened the door to using higher-value materials and processes on even more vehicles.
Ford's Fiesta compact car, for example, places a layer of foam between skin and substrate, Sessel said. That process not only provides a soft touch car shoppers can feel, but the foam also offers a tighter fit for other components such as air vents, improving the look of the car in a way buyers might not immediately notice, he said.
General Motors Co.'s compact Chevrolet Cruze is another example of a soft instrument panel making it into a car that retails for far less than $20,000.
They're taking the technology into a different segment, he said.
And conversations between suppliers and automakers laying out plans for future products indicate that Ford is not alone at looking at new ways to wrap interior trim and make it stand out.
We're seeing this across the industry, Sessel said.