Mercedes Benz S-Class – Are Interiors The Last Great Differentiator?

Back in the 1970s, a car sold in Australia was luxurious if it had velour seats and a radio. Those two features meant you didn’t burn your legs on vinyl seats after a day at the beach and you had some music on your way home.

Today, we’ve got so many interior amenities it’s hard to know the difference between inside and outside the car. We step out of a climate controlled building and get into a climate controlled car. We don’t have to stop taking or making phone calls because the Bluetooth system will sync directly and seamlessly with our phone. In the near future our cars will be online. We’ll be able to tweet traffic conditions to our Facebook friends using Waze on the way to a speed date.

AccordInteriorA1The downside of that is more often than not, our automotive furniture is as second-rate as our office furniture. Somewhere back in the 1990s it became OK for everything to be grey. Interiors got better in some ways but in other ways they got worse, simply because they became so generic.

Oceans of plastic. Tacky grey fabric, which if you were lucky, would come with a pale blue, yellow, red or green fleck. Then came the pleather revolution. Today it’s faux sport seats in sub-grade sporty-ish cars that look the goods, but don’t deliver.

I spend a lot of time considering the interior of any car I’m thinking of buying. For me, a car is a world away from home. It’s a world away from generic office life. Driving has the chance to be an occasion. The journey can be a destination all of its own. Whilst good exterior design provides some excitement as you approach from the outside, you spend your driving time inside the vehicle. The interior has to add to the experience.

This is why I got so excited when I saw images of the new Mercedes Benz S-Class interior a few days ago. Back in the early 1980s when I was still burning my legs on the seats of my Dad’s XY Ford Falcon wagon, a friend’s parents had a 1970’s vintage Mercedes. Sitting in that car was like being on another planet with views of the earth just outside the window. Those windows were electric, for starters. It had real wood grain trim, big switches and dials for all sorts of functions that the Falcon was missing. It smelled of leather rather than sawdust. That car didn’t try to be better than anything else I’d ever seen. It simply WAS.

The gap between European and non-European vehicles used to be a chasm when it came to interior design and quality. That gap closed over the last few decades and today, both premium and regular brands are selectively guilty of dumping their drivers in a sea of smelly plastic punctuated by generic switchgear.

If this is progress, why is it frequently so unsatisfying?

Form Follows Function is a wonderful mantra but it doesn’t mean things have to be boring. Yes, we like our gadgets in the new millennium but the soul endures. The soul still wants to be encased in something special, not something solely functional.

mazda-rx3-interiorThis is why Spyker’s interiors mean so much to me. It’s why the interiors of old sports cars mean so much to me. Original XJ series Jaguars, too. Even early Japanese sports cars (Mazda RX3, right) had interiors that made an announcement as to why you were in them. The interior of a car should speak at volume about why the car exists.

That’s why I like what I see in these early images of the new S-Class Mercedes interior. It seems that Mercedes has regained its sense of occasion. I look at these photos and to me, they ooze luxury, which is what a Mercedes S-Class should be all about.

Modern car companies from all segments are chasing exterior design efficiency. The shapes are largely the same. It’s the face that they draw on the shape that differs. Modern car companies all do engines and safety pretty well, too.

Could it be that interior design and the quality of materials used will be the last great differentiator between generic and premium cars?


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  1. I couldn’t agree more. Lots of grey and plastic. I really liked what I saw when we went to the Saab museum and saw some of colourful interiors of the older cars (purple, green interiors). I have some great photos. Why don’t we bring some of this back. Form & function is also as important.

  2. While I agree with your analysis, I don’t agree with your hope for the S-class. It is still the same old-fashioned, kitsch combination of inevitable leather with burl wood. This is the 21st century. I want fresh yet genuine materials. The green acrylic dashboard cladding on the 9-4x concept has forever changed my perception. As has the information that your queen does not like leather, and got her Bentleys with bespoken (ok, everything was bespoken with those πŸ˜‰ ) woolen seats. If it has to be wood, why not offer India made Inatarsia? Marble surfaces? Backlit (Gorilla) glass? Or more colourful plastics? Seat coatings made to my choice (Clan tartans of my clan would come to my mind, if I were Scottish. But then,everybody can register his personal tartan now!) Manufacturers, please give me something different, yet stylish.

    1. Nowdays, if you want something completely different, and made to your personal preferences, you must be prepared to pay at least 300.000 euros for that vehicle.

    2. Leather was traditionally reserved for the chauffeur because it was hard-wearing and could be left exposed to the elements. The royalty in the back got fabrics that were more in tune with their sensitive backsides.

      I’m not sure when leather became the norm all around, although I blame the Germans: if it wasn’t for WWII, Queen Elizabeth wouldn’t have learned to drive, and leather wouldn’t be considered “good enough for royalty.”

  3. As you know, I drove a 9000 Aero for many years and several thousands of miles. Still, the best interior I’ve ever been in, largely due to the seats. (The dash/instruments/etc. were fine… the seats, near perfect)

    Saab made wool seats as an option in some markets for the 9000 Aero. Deliver me a nice ’97 9000 Aero with a 5 speed, in Amethyst Violet with grey wool seats. Likely the only car I’d ever need!

    All told, I’m with you Swade. Interiors are very important.

  4. I remember reading an interview with a Toyota exec in the early 1990s where he explained that Toyota built high-quality/low-cost dashboards because they were made as one big piece from A pillar to a pillar. He compared this to other carmakers that used several smaller pieces, leading to creaks and poor fit.
    Ever since, all car interiors have looked like they were made out of one big piece of plastic, and car reviewers are more bothered by occasional creaks and mis-aligned parts than they are by the soul-crushing effect that a grey plastic blob can have on a person.

    It’s good to see that manufacturers and suppliers can now build interiors that are both good-looking and high-quality.

    As an aside, the last few S-Classes (post-W126) have been European-style Lincoln Town Cars. You rarely see them in private hands, or driven by their owners. I wonder if MB will try to reclaim that market. I understand that China is very much a chauffeur market at the high end, so this new S-Class may not be a great drive.

  5. Hopefully, the keyword here will be “individualised mass production”. We are getting closer to this. If a computer can make fabric pieces for the seats out of a stretch of garment supplied by a customer in 5 minutes, it won’t cost too much. More engineering and development in this direction could lead to results that indeed could turn to be the “great differentiator”.

  6. While interiors may be the best example of this, I think I would broaden your commentary a bit and say DETAILING is the last great differentiator, of which the interior just gives the most opportunities.

    I was listening to NPR this AM, and they were talking about how Samsung is moving into software because the hardware is about to become commoditized. That is the scenario where smartphone quality becomes so uniformly high, and the high end features become so ubiqitous and commonplace, that the product has very little room to differentiate and very little will separate the top maker from the pretenders. The only way something can stand out as “special” is either in design, which will become increasingly difficult, or in software. Thus, the move to software…

    In autos, I think the same thing is about to happen. You’ll have “luxury” quality, features, safety, performance, and comfort in everything from an Acura ILX or Buick Verano all the way on up to, well, an S-class… So what will make anything, such as an S-Class or Spyker or anything, worth the premium? Worth actually even existing? The detailing, and part of detailing will be tailoring the vehicle to the driver.

    I think everything, from the appearance of headlight clusters, to keyfobs, to side mirrors, to dash textures will have to scream “bespoke” and “unique” to become relevant. Branding and marketing autos as extensions of identity and self expression will become more important than ever to prevent commodization. You just won’t be able to mimic a 3 series or an Lexus LS (the cars that “won” the aesthetic wars of the 2000’s) to succeed. Audi already years ago made the interior the first battleground, MB is just seemingly about to up the stakes…

  7. I remember when I sat down in a Saab the first time as a kid – a 900 hatch – and it felt as if I had entered a car from another planet! Everything looked different, the design language was completely foreign.

    What stuck with me though was that it was much more human oriented than the Japanese/German cars I’d seen (and my family sold). What about those big (and low) windows/the windshield that actually seemed to be made to be able to look through? The extremely comfortable, soft and cozy (beautiful!) seats? The warm colors? And it drove and sounded _very_ differently!

    I remember thinking that it was as if this car was meant for something else than any of those in my family (yeah, I really thought so, as a kid). A different form for a different function.

  8. About the S-class: I dislike the lighting and the presumptuousness, but yeah, there is definitely a sense of occasion – that’s the exact word btw, couldn’t say it better.

    I think it’s a very bad idea for a car to show off its electronics: they’ll be outdated before you update your phone. It would be much better to hide it away and focus on having it do its work invisibly (also, it’s very hard to do good software and user interfaces – there’s a reason car manufacturers are that and not software companies). I’d rather use an app on my phone/ipad/laptop for anything beyond what you do while driving.

    But invisibility of electronics would reinforce (almost timeless) simplicity as an ideal/design taste, and that… well, that’s a tricky one – but oh how good it could be.

  9. I believe Signs has conveyed an important thought in my mind with the comment upon hiding away a car’s electronics and letting it do the work invisibly.

    I think the vehicle will feel much more special if it performs necessary functions in an unassuming but efficient manner. The controls can have a functional simplicity yet pleasing aesthetic aspect. I think the phrase is understated elegance.

    I’m not a great lover of shiny centre consoles which stand out from the rest of the dash. They seem to scream out ‘look at me, look at what I’m doing’, somewhat like a 1970s / 80s cheap sound system, rather than getting on with the job in hand.

    While the mechanics, electrics and electronics get on with the tasks required of them the driver can appreciate the interior surroundings and get on with driving the car.