26 Sep 2013

Car interiors and the curse of elephant-hide plastic

Last weekend I attended the Berkshire Show.  At the show several local dealers brought along a selection of new models for the public to sit in, look at, poke about in and leave chewing gum under the seats.

There were models from Volvo, Mitsubishi, Mazda, MG, Skoda and Vauxhall.  I sat in most of them and had a poke around, although I didn't leave any chewing gum under the seats.

My 11-year old son did the same.  His favourite, as it was at CarFest, was the Vauxhall Cascada.  His favourite car of all time is "all Lotuses".  He doesn't chew gum.

It was interesting hopping from car to car from a group of manufacturers who compete in similar sectors.  The exteriors are obviously all slightly different, with perhaps Volvo being the most successful in terms of forming a stand-out corporate style which translates well into individual models.  Skoda and Vauxhall also make handsome cars, and the MG3 isn't too bad, although the MG6 is slightly bulbous.  I struggled with Mazda's swoopy lines and felt it should be more confident in its basic ability to design nice looking cars without the need for slashes at weird angles.  Mitsubishis are becoming too bland in the name of low drag.

But, step inside the various cars and we enter a strange world where, aside from the steering wheel, it's hard to tell one from the other.

With the loss of the handbrake and the inclusion of touch screens, electric windows as standard and a proliferation of buttons, mid-segment car's interiors are becoming increasingly analogous.

All these cars interiors are 'good' in that they are ergonomically designed and well laid out.  The window buttons are all very same-same - Skoda's window buttons are hilariously identical to any found in any VW from the past 15 years.  The steering wheels all convey the mood of the car.  Vauxhall do sporty steering wheels, Volvo's are business-like and efficient etc etc.

The various knobs and buttons are all very well designed and feel of decent quality, although the little logo on the dial in the Skodas, that turns the stereo on and changes the volume, moves as you turn the dial.  This is infuriating and would bug me every time I looked at it, slightly off centre.  In most other cars the aluminium exterior moves around the fixed central part.

Even the seats in most of these cars followed similar traits.  Mostly electrically adjustable they mainly have leather trim with the bit you sit on being made from cloth.  The quality of the cloth improves with the expense of the model.  Sorry to bang on about Skoda but the seat trim in the Laurin and Kliment Superb was like Saville Row suit trousers material whilst that in the Yeti boggo spec was ancient Farah slacks.

So far so shiny and bright.  The actual layout differs slightly from car to car and manufacturer to manufacturer.  I don't like Vauxhall's twin A-pillar design.  The windscreen in the newer models is so far away from the driver (in order to reduce drag it's almost flat) that it requires two A-pillars.  That in the Zafira is about 4 feet in front of the driver.  My son loved the Zafira by the way.
Vauxhall Zafira's twin A-pillars

But what brings (almost) all these cars together is the massive, overt proliferation of horrible elephant-hide plastic.  The grain differs slightly, and is no worse than in my 1998 BMW, but by golly I'm sick to death of acres of black plastic, with a leather lookey-likey grain.
Horrible plastic on some Mazda or other

Even Volvo, the most luxurious of the above manufacturers, doesn't shy away from this plastic leather.  At least, though, in Volvos it is pliant and soft to the touch.  The plastic in the Mitsubishis and Mazdas is harsh and brittle feeling.  It is slightly better in the Vauxhalls but is alarmingly shiny in places.  Skoda LOVES leather-effect plastic, placing it wherever they can.  MG put it everywhere too.

I'm hyper-critical of interiors generally, and love a good interior - after all that's where you spend your time with a car.  You don't travel on the roof, you sit in the seat and touch and look at the interior.  Mercedes can make some so-so interiors but, with the SL 63 AMG, it makes one of the best in the business.
Well done Mercedes.  The SL 63 AMG interior is lush

Of all the cars at the Berkshire Show the one that had the least amount of leather-effect plastic was the Vauxhall Adam.  Vauxhall has made an effort to make it look different so have given it a unique grain, and used little of it, in favour of aluminium-effect plastic.  Whilst this is another 'fake' material at least it shows Vauxhall has given the interior some thought, and not inflicted plastic with a leather grain on Adam occupants.
Vauxhall Adam plastic detail - note it isn't leather effect

Of all the 'cheapo' cars I've driven the one with the best interior design has been the Renault Captur.  Renault makes some cracking interiors at the moment.  It uses different grains in the plastic and the materials, in terms of look and feel, are superior to its competitors.  The photo below is of the dash top in the Captur.

Car manufacturers who use horrible plastics need to take a look at it and try to emulate the Captur so we, the consumers, don't have elephant-arse plastic inflicted on us in future cars.
Renault Captur dash top.  Well done Renault
Article by Matt Hubbard