In a darkened room deep inside Ford Motor Co.'s top-secret design studios, Elizabeth Baron slides behind the wheel of the $140,000 GT sports car. She adjusts her seat and reaches for the stick shift. Suddenly, Baron can't move. "Adam," she shouts to another Ford engineer, "could you toggle me, please?" Adam reboots a laptop and Baron is once again free to move about the GT's cabin. But it's not a real GT, and Baron is not exactly herself, either. She's actually sitting in a crude wooden car seat, wearing virtual-reality goggles and gloves, with 11 sensors strapped to her body. The high-tech gear, known as Digital Occupant, transforms the slender 5-foot-6 woman into a beefy 6-foot-5 man shoehorned into this lowrider. In her goggles, she feels like Ralph Kramden struggling to work the GT controls. "It's a pretty tight cockpit," she says. "I don't have much room."
Detroit is finding itself squeezed in a new way. After two decades of chasing Japanese automakers' superior car quality, Detroit is finally closing the gap. That's the good news. Here's the bad news: the quality game is changing, and Detroit is once again lagging behind. Drivers now expect their cars to do more than simply start in the morning and get them to the office. They want to feel pampered when they're stuck in traffic. They want ambience and emotion. They want everything where they expect it to be (which is where Digital Occupant comes in), and it all must feel, sound and smell just right. The click of a switch now says as much about a car's quality as the fit of a fender. Just ask Ken Levin, who chose a Lexus after rejecting other cars for having radio buttons that were too small. "It may sound petty, but you spend your life inside your car," says the attorney for the car Web site Edmunds.com. "To me, it's become all about creature comforts."
Car execs call this touchy-feely business "emotional quality." And they attribute it to an expanding design literacy in American society, where even toilet-bowl brushes must be a stylized marriage of form and function. The leaders in this race are German automakers, with their solid Bauhaus interiors, followed by the Japanese, whose obsessive attention to detail creates seamless car interiors. American automakers, however, are plagued by a cheap, rental-car image. In Detroit's macho culture, ambience has taken a back seat to horsepower. Analysts say the Big Three's lack of a sensitive side helps explain why their U.S. market share continues to skid, falling to 61 percent in 2003 from 65 percent two years ago. General Motors' car czar Bob Lutz admits that Motown has failed to sweat the details. "As an American society," he says, "we are not anal enough when it comes to perfection."
But now Detroit's gearheads are giving themselves a makeover. The Big Three are pouring hundreds of millions into an esthetic overhaul that includes new labs to scientifically measure the highly subjective art of "driver touch points." The fruits of their labor will be seen at this week's Detroit auto show, which might as well be renamed the Detroit Interior Decorating Show. GM will debut its stylish new Saturn Curve, with a flowing center console carved from a single piece of blond wood. And Ford will show off its restyled Mustang, with backlit gauges that can be adjusted to 125 different color combos, and its new Five Hundred sedan, with a Teutonic, oak-trimmed dash. "Everyone has discovered the importance of craftsmanship and quality in the interior," says Ford chief designer J Mays. "Now it's an all-out war."
And in this war, misfiring on the small details can cost you an important battle. As Chrysler engineered its new 300C sedan, COO Wolfgang Bernhard repeatedly rejected turn signals for having a harsh blinking sound. "First it sounded like a woodpecker," says Bernhard. "Then it sounded like a donkey going over a wooden bridge." Don't laugh. These esoteric sensory cues can make or break a car sale today. "If a consumer opens the door and sees acres of shiny plastic and switches that go clack," says Lutz, "then it's no-go."
To get the clicks right, Detroit's designers used to describe feelings with words. "But what's too clicky or too mushy to one guy is different to another," says Ford touch specialist Pietro Buttolo. Now Ford's new Haptics Lab is trying to scientifically quantify "the golden rules of touch," says director Charles Wu, nervously adding: "But we can't tell you too much." Inside the cramped lab, a dashboard from a Lincoln Aviator lies on a table while technicians rework the snap of its buttons to make them all feel alike. On a desk nearby, a turn-signal lever and steering wheel are clamped in a vice and wired to a laptop. An initial flip of the turn signal finds it as limp as a wet noodle. Then Buttolo taps the laptop and suddenly the lever moves fluidly, with muted clicks to indicate a lane change or a left turn. Buttolo can adjust the "shape of the feel" from velvety soft to so hard that it's like breaking a chicken's leg.
Still, no matter how many engineers you throw at the problem, emotional quality will always be elusive. "You can't see this as a function; it's more an atmosphere you're trying to create," says Volkswagen designer Klaus Bischoff. "And that's not so measurable." For VW, making sure all the interior bits feel precise is just the first step. The German automaker also tries to give drivers something they didn't even know they wanted. VW's new Golf economy car can be equipped with an indirect climate-control system, where the heat and the air conditioning flow from hidden vents on top of the dash and below the seat. The idea is to create a climate akin to your home, rather than blow hot air in your face. Thoughtful details like that help make up for VW's subpar quality in J.D. Power's reliability rankings. That's why VW drivers like Bill Fluharty keep coming back, even though his Passat was in the shop for 12 weeks. "You're more forgiving of its faults," he explains, "because you're in a good mood.''
Detroit could use that kind of emotional rescue. And one of its first attempts to get it can be found inside Cadillac's new $76,000 XLR roadster. Before crafting its sleek aluminum and eucalyptus interior, Cadillac designer Eric Clough tore apart the innards of a Lexus, Mercedes and Jaguar. Rather than mimicking their burled walnut interiors, Clough went for a high-tech look by wrapping the XLR's controls in satin-finish aluminum--which proved to be very finicky. "It showed fingerprints relentlessly," says Clough. To fix the problem, Clough brought scores of burnished-aluminum samples into the studio and invited female designers to smudge them. "We'd get women to put on a lot of hand cream and tell them, 'Give it your best shot'," he recalls. "It took months to get it right." The result is the best car interior GM has on the road, says Clough. But Consumer Reports is not impressed. "The feel of materials is a little on the plastic side," says CR auto tester David Champion. "It doesn't come up to the standards of the Germans and Japanese."
That criticism sure sounds familiar. And what's worse, Detroit's foreign rivals are already pressing their advantage. The Lexus GS330 being introduced this week actually shines a spotlight on the driver's seat when you unlock the doors. "We're trying to create a sense that the car is anticipating your feelings," says designer Simon Humphries. Interior specialist Johnson Controls goes one better, equipping its concept with a dashboard mood screen. Turn up the heat and a roaring fire fills the screen. Flip on the air conditioner and virtual snowflakes fall. So forget horsepower; Detroit execs now are talking like Zen masters. "In the past, it was all about a big V-8," says Ford Group vice president Phil Martens. "Now it's about harmony and balance." Nice. But this is really about getting the competition off-balance. Then Motown would be basking in good karma.