7 Oct 2014

Car Interiors - The Good, The Bad And The Ugly

Car interiors are often overlooked by buyers.  They shouldn't be.  Here's our guide to what to look for in the interior of your next car.

When you're choosing a new car, be it brand spanking new or second hand, you'll largely be swayed by looks, price, running costs, performance and what other people say about it.

Happily all of the above information can be gleaned from a magazine or the internet (including Speedmonkey's own road test index).

The stats are one thing, the aesthetics another and you can check out how your prospective lump of metal looks simply by looking at photos.  But when you look at photos they are generally of the outside of the car.  Sure, you might take a glance at an interior photo or two but it will unlikely make much difference to most people.  And even if you do look at some interior photos they won't tell the full story.

Yet, you see your car when you get in and when you get out.  All the time in-between is spent looking at and interacting with the interior.

The very place you'll be looking at the most, touching the most, and spending the most time with is the one area largely ignored by buyers.  All interiors are not equal - they vary a lot.

Let's make some sweeping statements purely for illustrative purposes.  American cars, Japanese and Korean cars tend to have horrible interiors, German cars have functional interiors, Italian cars have interiors with flair (read: bits fall off), British cars have the best interiors (new MGs are NOT British cars), French cars have cheap interiors that look quite good and Swedish cars have great interiors that cost quite a lot.

Also, you might think that expensive cars have the best interiors - not true - and that cheap cars have the worst interiors - also not true.

How good a car's interior is comes down to how much the designer cared about how it looked and felt and how much the accountants let him indulge himself.

Take Volkswagen.  VW interiors are functional, straightforward and melt into the background.  They are ergonomically perfect but some of the materials used are cheap - yet you'd never notice.  If someone test drove a Golf and were then asked about the interior their answer would be, "...erm. I don't remember."

This is Volkswagen's genius.  If the same person drove a Ford Focus their answer would be, "Well, it's plasticky, has too many buttons and there's a bit that looks like it was made by Fisher Price."

Volvo and Jaguar make the best mass-produced interiors although neither company produces cars at the cheap end of the spectrum.

Audi takes VW's functional genius and adds some posher materials and a tiny amount of design flair (most of which derives from the Mk1 TT). But if you get in a £60k Audi you'd notice some elephant hide plastic that would be leather in a Jag.

Mercedes and BMW are no different. Pay a fortune for one of their cars and you still get that nasty, scratchy material covering the A-pillar and an infotainment screen that sticks out of the dashboard like a Chinese rip-off of an iPad.

But sit in a Range Rover Evoque and be amazed at how much better the quality of the materials is than anything from Germany (although the Merc SL's interior is amazing).

Some companies have different approaches to those vast swathes of plastic atop the dash and doors.  Honda and Toyota have no qualms about using hard, scratchy plastic yet Volvo uses squishy stuff that looks similar but feels much nicer, which improves the experience no end.

Renault make cars right at the bottom end of the market but the interiors look OK.  In a Renault that cursed elephant hide pattern is replaced with tiny little patterns.  As a result their cabins look classier than, say, a Fiesta.

Peugeot, on the either hand, don't bother and the 208 GTI's gearstick has a scratchy bit of plastic that you notice every single time you change gear.

The driving position makes a huge difference to how a car feels. Speedmonkey always reports on this but not many other publications do. Some cars are designed for all sizes whilst others aren't (Mercedes B-Class I'm looking at you - you need a long body and short legs to be truly comfortable in a B).

Visibility is not always a given.  The new fad for twin A-pillars might be good for safety in terms of an impact but it's calamitous for safety in terms of being able to see out of the car.  Vauxhall is one of the worst offenders in this regard.

Infotainment systems vary a lot too.  Many manufacturers make an effort to create a good looking, intuitive system whilst others don't even try.  Several manufacturers, mainly Japanese, supply aftermarket systems, which look terrible.  Ford's system is bad to look at and to use whilst Subaru's is comically unworkable.

Seats.  Ahhhh, where to start.  Vauxhall makes great looking seats with masses of adjustment that singularly fail in the comfort stakes.  Jaguar also suffers from good looking seats that you never quite get comfy in.  Land Rover, bizarrely (seeing as they're the same company as Jag) always makes seats that are spot on.  Volvo makes the best seats - that's why they fit so many drivers aids, so you don't doze off.  The seats in a Nissan Pathfinder truck are made for people with very small bottoms and the seats in a VW Golf are just there - like all VW stuff you hardly notice them but they work perfectly. I've never got truly comfortable in a BMW seat but Mercedes and Audi make great chairs.  Toyota seats are just fine but look cheap.  You can feel the frame through the stuffing in a Mitsubishi Outlander seat. Dacia seats are cheap and you fall out of them when you go round corners. I could go on but you get the gist.

Ultimately a car can be absolutely fine but a small area can ruin the experience.  The Honda Civic has a great looking interior but it has a plastic steering wheel, which ruins the effect.  Similarly the 208 GTI's gear knob spoils an otherwise good car.

Finally we come to storage. A Jaguar F-Type or a  Porsche Cayman have almost nowhere to put anything.  A Lotus has literally nowhere to put anything.  A Morgan 3-Wheeler has less than that.

Most cars that aren't sports cars have adequate storage space.  A Mitsubishi Outlander has ten cupholders but only seven seats, a Volvo XC60 has more storage space in the cabin than a shipping container but the door pockets are such a weird shape that you lose most of what's in there.

A lot of cars don't have anywhere sensible to put an iPhone, some cupholders are either too small or too large for most cups, some storage spaces have flat bottoms so anything in them falls out when accelerating or braking. The armrest in an Alfa Giulietta prevents you putting anything in the cupholders and the armrest in a VW Polo prevents you using the handbrake or changing gear.

Car interiors are very important but consumers don't think enough about them when buying their cars.

When researching your car make sure you think about the inside of it as much as the outside. If you don't you could be in for a few surprises - and not all of them pleasant.

By Matt Hubbard