Kate Zak, General Motors' director of global component strategy, stands under moody spotlights in front of three disembodied steering wheels, talking about the importance of a proper "handshake." The interactions in question — the tactile experience of hands on a gear shift, a windshield wiper stalk, or a steering wheel — are minute, and, it turns out, inextricably linked to drivers' impressions of a car's overall quality. "We've found that these handshake components — their feel, their sound, their actuation — really are for customers an indicator for the entire vehicle, windows of insight into the car," says Zak.
After inviting the small group of journalists with whom she's speaking to poke and prod the steering wheels behind her, she moves on to another set of dislocated auto components in a dim room punctuated by design displays swathed in contrapuntal light. The traveling salon is part of a GM campaign to put its designers — and the work inside the Warren, Mich. Design Center — front and center.
The company is trying to show that it too knows how to innovate, and that the products of a long-term, design-driven revitalization are at last ready for prime time. Dave Rand, GM's executive director of interior design, says, "We don't have to keep making promises, we feel we have something we can show."
The world's biggest auto maker is in a highly publicized dogfight with Toyota, a company with a sterling reputation for innovation as well surging sales that could catapult it into the No. 1 position globally sometime this year. That leaves GM and its stable of eight auto brands warring on two related fronts: the first, staving off Japanese competition while attempting to cut costs at its varied divisions, which range from Saturn to Hummer; the second, fighting for relevance and quality in the eyes of consumers.
Now the company has begun showing products aimed at clawing back lost territory. A new version of Cadillac's flagship sports sedan, for example, features a "cut-and-sew" process by which coverings on the instrument panel, center console, and door trim are cut, sewn, and wrapped by hand, allowing for sartorial flourishes such as French stitching. It's the kind of detailing light years away from recent GM products. "We've learned the difference between what is expensive and what looks expensive," says Rand.
According to Rand, these new products stem from a corporate edict issued four years ago by Bob Lutz, the company's vice-chairman for global product development. The Lutz decree elevated design at large to primary status, increasing its budget and giving designers more power in decision-making. Additionally, the initiative gave equal importance to exterior and interior design—a first for the company, since the latter had previously been subordinate to body design. "We were extremely liberated," says Rand.
"Black tie" components
Rand and his design team went to work, charged with transforming the company's interiors. Many GM products had been maligned by auto analysts and consumers for being seas of sexless hard plastics and flimsy components. Taking cues from furniture, jewelry, and graphic design, the GM team started with the basics: audio and climate controls, instrument clusters, seats, and even keys.
The first generation of new dash components — knobs, switches, buttons, and radio and climate controls — was dubbed "black tie," as in elegant and goes with everything. These elements — not the dashboard forms themselves but the components that populate them — could be used in Cadillac models as well as less expensive Chevrolets.
The idea, according to Zak, was to give components a weight and level of detailing noticeably more refined than previous products, and to distribute those improvements across the company's many brands. Working with suppliers, the designers were able to develop a set of radio and climate controls that were more attractive but could be used in multiple models.
The resulting pieces are subtle examples of interaction design. Instead of being fabricated out of one piece of hard plastic, knobs that turn on a vehicle's headlamps, for instance, were made to have multiple components. The textured track where the fingers grip the knob gives it a heavy, well-built feeling. That particular component currently populates the dashboards of certain Cadillac, Chevrolet, and Saturn models.
Seats were another area of focus. Jim Gasparotto, creative designer for color and trim, says inspiration comes from the fabrics used in home furnishings, which display more flair and personality than the habitual gray or black of most car interiors. Gassparotto helped develop deep tan seats with high-quality textures and detailed stitching for the new Saturn Aura, released last year. "Seats are one of the most important components," he says. "They're often the first thing you notice when you open the doors, and they create first impressions."
The company says that of customers buying Auras with leather seating, 30% are choosing Gasparotto's sexy but unconventional Morocco Brown package. For the designer, that's a gratifying statistic, especially since many auto journalists suspected the option would never make it to dealer showrooms.
Designers are still working on GM's key fobs, the miniature remote controls attached to most new car keys. "A key fob is statement, the only component that walks away from the car," says Zak. "In the past, we've had very utilitarian key fobs that work but don't take advantage of the branding opportunity. Our goal is for those to become a conversation piece."
Zak showed development prototypes of fobs that play with form and functionality, blocks of clear, shaped resin and wood, some oval and rounded, others sharp and high-tech looking. Designers, she says, are taking a page from jewelers and makers of high-end watches that are meticulously weighted to feel luxurious and substantial in hand.
The company's efforts have already started paying off. New interiors from the Cadillac, Chevrolet, and Pontiac divisions picked up numerous accolades at last year's Interior of the Year awards held annually by Ward's. And the 2007 Chevrolet Silverado pickup and Saturn Aura sedan were named North American truck and car of the year, respectively, at the North American International Auto Show in January. Both vehicles feature the "black tie" generation of components.
Industry analysts have also been impressed. The recently debuted 2008 Chevrolet Malibu, a high-volume sedan likely to cost around $20,000, stole the Detroit show with an interior crafted to dazzle. That model combines components from other GM models with seats similar to those now popular in the Aura but adds a cabin sculpted like an airline cockpit and an available set of unusual but evocative two-tone color combinations.
"It's incredible," says Erich Merkle, director of forecasting at IRN, a Grand Rapids (Mich.)-based automotive research group. "That interior just blows away expectations. I expect it to have a huge effect."
"It certainly looks like a tremendous value for the price," says Jesse Toprak, executive director of industry analysis at Edmunds.com. "It looks like a $40,000 Lexus inside."
Reviews like that are music to GM's ears, no doubt. But designers at the salon had one more piece of work to show off that won't be available until later this year. In the corner of GM's exhibit sat one of four preproduction Cadillac CTS sport sedans. The new version of that vehicle is the first to feature a host of the design lab's next-generation developments.
The CTS's interior is intended as another drastic leap forward. Unlike the "black tie" dash components, the audio and climate control systems are designed to be customizable on a model-by-model and cabin-by-cabin basis. Controls, for instance, can be designed and distributed independently of each other, not having to be a part of a commonly defined layout.
Ready for reaction
That allows designers to create sweeping surfaces with integrated buttons and knobs more appropriate to the style of each car. That process adds cost, admits Rand, but he and other executives believe the improvements in quality are worth it. "Here, the layout is much more subdominant to the overall themes of the cabin," notes Zak. "That allows us, in this case, to create a sense of spaciousness and sportiness."
The fruits of GM's new interior-design initiative are now either just hitting dealer lots or on the production line. It remains to be seen how sales and quality perceptions are affected, and that has left Rand's designers working fervently on future interiors with one ear cocked to catch industry and consumer reaction. "We didn't really have a choice," says Rand, referring in part to the directive from the top but also to the damage low-quality interiors had done to the company's reputation, "but I'm glad we're here now."