Luxury automakers win a majority of the spots on the 2016 Wards 10 Best Interiors list for the first time ever, signifying the brisk pace of product development in the premium segment and illustrating the popularity of aspirational vehicles in the strong U.S. market.
This year’s winners:
- Audi TTS ($58,500 as tested)
- BMW 7-Series ($129,245)
- Cadillac XT5 ($63,845)
- Chevrolet Camaro ($46,095)
- Chrysler Pacifica ($48,455)
- Honda Civic ($27,335)
- Lexus RX ($52,968)
- Mercedes-Benz GLC ($54,360)
- Nissan Maxima ($38,750)
- Volvo XC90 ($84,005)
In years past, as many as three luxury brands have been recognized on the list. This year, one could argue all 10 honored vehicles lean toward the luxury side of the aisle, as the Camaro, Civic, Maxima and Pacifica integrate lots of soft surfaces, upscale materials, warm ambient lighting and the latest connectivity and safety features typically found in premium cars.
“It’s important that the Wards 10 Best Interiors list include mainstream, affordable vehicles,” says Drew Winter, director-content at WardsAuto. “But the average price of a new vehicle in the U.S. has risen past $33,000, which is forcing us to reconsider how we define mainstream, affordable vehicles.”
Besides, the established luxury brands are flush with new product. Of the 47 vehicles evaluated in this year’s competition, 19 hail from premium brands. For instance, Audi had five eligible vehicles this year (A4, A6, Q7, S7 and TTS), while BMW and Lexus each had three entries.
Eight WardsAuto editors selected the winners after spending February and March evaluating all 47 interiors. To be eligible, an interior must be all-new or significantly redesigned.
Each vehicle is scored based on aesthetics and design harmony, as well as materials, ergonomics, safety, comfort, value and fit-and-finish. Editors also test the user-friendliness of the human-machine interface to see how effectively vehicle information is communicated.
WardsAuto is developing another competition and conference around this last category. The WardsAuto User Experience Conference will be held Oct. 4 at the Suburban Collection Showplace in Novi, MI, where vehicles will be honored as part of the first Wards 10 Best User Experiences competition.
Audi TTS, BMW 7-Series, Cadillac XT5
Audi redefines how a driver experiences a compact sports coupe by integrating buttons and climate controls in clever places on the instrument panel, freeing up space and resulting in a cabin that feels less cramped.
With an IP free of clutter and the only information screen perched directly behind the steering wheel, the TTS clearly is a driver-focused car. Audi calls this the virtual cockpit, and the Q7 CUV and A4 sedan apply it to great effect while also integrating display screens within the center stack. Both scored highly in our competition as well.
But the TTS is spectacular for other reasons, such as the aggressively bolstered bucket seats covered in hot Express Red leather with diamond stitching, as well as the glistening brushed aluminum center console dressed up with red contrast stitching. The alluring TTS is far from practical, but sensibility sells few cars in this class.
BMW faced a tall challenge when its chief rival, Mercedes-Benz, launched the S-Class sedan a few years ago with a stunningly beautiful interior, setting the benchmark for luxury sedans.
But the Bavarians rose to the occasion and responded with an all-new 7-Series flagship that elevates the BMW interior design language and incorporates enough electronic wizardry to entertain a member of the Geek Squad for hours.
And despite what the new 7-Series interior represents as a departure from the past, there are enough familiar aspects to keep brand loyalists happy, such as the horizontal array of audio and climate controls in the center stack. The much-improved iDrive interface remains the go-to spot for most vehicle information, displayed on a 10.2-in. (26-cm) high-resolution touchscreen.
So many features put the 7-Series in the winner’s circle: the massaging seats, heated armrests, chestnut wood trim inlays, wireless phone charging, microsuede Alcantara headliner and the swirling lighted speaker grates for the outstanding Bowers & Wilkins sound system. Don’t forget gesture control, which lets the driver perform certain functions with a mere swipe of the hand.
Cadillac took a big chance when it ditched the name of its most popular vehicle, the SRX CUV, and called its replacement XT5.
This all-new XT5 rolled into a cage match with nine other finely appointed midsize luxury utes in this year’s competition and was among four to survive and make the list.
It does so with first-rate materials, such as satin-finish Rosewood trim, supple semi-Aniline Maple Sugar leather, rich metallic brightwork and velvety microsuede headliner, pillar trim and (on certain models) instrument panel.
Other features are impressive as well, such as the rear camera mirror, seamless connectivity of the Cadillac User Experience, bright head-up display, Ultraview panoramic sunroof and generally flawless fit-and-finish.
Amid all these elements, it’s easy to overlook how comfortable and ergonomically correct the XT5 is, whether in the reclining second row or seated in the driver’s seat, where the shifter and all controls are within easy reach. After climbing into a new XT5, Cadillac lovers will scarcely remember the SRX nameplate.
Chevrolet Camaro, Chrysler Pacifica, Honda Civic
A design team can be overwhelmed when tasked with reviving a cherished nameplate from long ago but ensuring the interior space includes every modern amenity. A connection to past styling cues is important but so is impressing a shopper with something unexpected and contemporary.
General Motors absolutely succeeds on all fronts with the new Chevrolet Camaro, which comes with enough significantly upgraded materials and flare to set a new standard for an interior in this segment. Who knew the cabin of a muscle car could incorporate so many soft surfaces and still feel like a sporty coupe intended to be driven hard?
Our well-equipped Camaro SS came with a mostly black interior, but the beefy seats and door panels tie in a striking accent with Ceramic White trim inserts and contrast stitching.
And this V8-powered bruiser is well suited for comfortable cruising with a heated steering wheel, heated and cooled front seats and more than 20 ambient lighting colors to fit your every mood. It’s a classic in the making.
If today’s minivan is supposed to be more about function than form, the Fiat Chrysler design team never got that memo. Instead, the folks who put the minivan on the map in the 1980s have stunned the segment yet again with the lavishly appointed Chrysler Pacifica, which replaces the well-regarded Town and Country minivan.
Consumers needing space and flexibility but wanting pizzazz and even a bit of coddling when the kids aren’t in the back seats will find the Pacifica interior to be a breath of fresh air.
The black and Deep Mocha color scheme on the leather-trimmed seats, door panels and instrument panel make an immediate and soothing first impression that will beckon every harried parent who must transport little ones to school, dance recitals and hockey practice.
The Stow ’n Vac vacuum integrated near the rear of the driver-side sliding door makes for easy cleanup, and the updated Stow ’n Go seats fold into the floor in the second and third rows when extra cargo room is needed. Surprisingly, the third row is quite comfortable for an adult, especially with seatbacks that recline at the touch of a button.
Honda was drubbed four years ago by critics who found the interior of the ninth-generation Civic compact car to be dull and uninviting.
Now, the 10th-generation Civic has arrived, erasing those memories with a fresh, upscale cabin that stands apart from its segment rivals and reminds the world why the Civic remains one of America’s most popular small cars.
Aesthetically, the new Civic is spot-on, with two shades of adjoining metallic trim (bronze and silver) on the instrument panel and doors. In addition, this beige interior is spiced up by a single black stripe down the center of each front seat.
For $27,335, a top-of-the-range Civic can be had with a 10-speaker audio system with subwoofer, Bluetooth HandsFree link, Honda LaneWatch, text-message capability, a clever and spacious center storage bin and leather seats, steering wheel and shift knob, as well as a suite of active-safety technologies.
The new Civic is the least-expensive vehicle on our list this year, but it hardly qualifies as cheap.
Lexus RX, Mercedes-Benz GLC
Four luxury midsize CUVs earning spots on the Wards 10 Best Interiors list suggests a trend: The segment is bursting with fine new entries, including several that did not make the cut.
The all-new Lexus RX, which pioneered the idea of a car-based luxury ute nearly 20 years ago, remains a groundbreaking entity today that is No.1 in its class, outselling many of its rivals by a factor of three.
Open the door, slide into the driver’s seat and the reasons for its dominance are evident in the impeccable fit-and-finish, the satin brushed-aluminum trim, the form-fitting seats, the crisply lit gauges and display screen, the white contrast stitching on charcoal leather and the richly finished Espresso Walnut wood surface that curves like a half-pipe from the center console up toward the glovebox.
But the RX is much more than a luxury experience, never seeming to forget its utilitarian purpose. Second-row seats fold nearly flat, exposing a massive cargo hold to accommodate at least a dozen flats of gardenias for hauling home from the nursery.
Likewise, the Mercedes-Benz GLC is another beautifully executed 5-passenger utility vehicle that carries forward the interior design language that earned 10 Best Interiors trophies for the S-Class two years ago and for the C-Class last year.
Formerly known as the GLK entry-level CUV, the new GLC comes flush with premium features but at a reasonably low price. Our 4-cyl. all-wheel-drive GLC300 4Matic test vehicle arrived with a base price of $40,950 and an out-the-door sticker of $54,360.
That price includes a long list of options, such as heated rear seats, panoramic sunroof, Burmester surround-sound audio system and several driver-assistance features (blindspot detection, automated emergency braking, lane-keeping assistance, active cruise control and cross-traffic alert).
The GLC is supremely comfortable in the front row, and scalloped seatbacks add space for second-row occupants.
For the driver, the interface with the high-resolution display screen is first-rate, whether using the touchpad or the rotating dial in the center console to select vehicle preferences. The voice-recognition system and Bluetooth media and phone link also work well.
Nissan Maxima, Volvo XC90
Now in its eighth generation, the Maxima remains Nissan’s flagship car, and the spacious interior of this front-wheel-drive sport sedan delivers a warm, inviting interior that competes with significantly more expensive vehicles from luxury brands.
It makes a brilliant first impression with expert craftsmanship, a unique black-and-camel color scheme and loads of spectacular touches, such as the 2-tone flat-bottom steering wheel, expertly applied contrast stitching, cushy Zero-Gravity front seats and Alcantara diamond-quilted seating surfaces.
Arguably, the most beguiling part of this interior is the “Liquid Chrome” metallic trim, which covers the instrument panel and doors. At first sight, the trim appears smooth. But when the light hits it just right, the surface reveals a subtle weave.
It’s these special touches that explain why the Maxima scored higher than certain sedans from dedicated luxury brands in this year’s competition. Adding to the experience is both active noise cancelation and active sound enhancement.
Nissan took some chances with the Maxima interior, but the rewards are evident.
Volvo may be last in our list alphabetically, but its XC90 interior arguably makes the most dramatic styling statement in this year’s competition, leveraging a uniquely Scandinavian sensibility that explains Ikea’s runaway success.
From the diagonal grain of the Linear Walnut wood inlays and Oreffors crystal gear shifter to the user-friendly tablet-shaped display screen and gleaming brightwork, the XC90’s cabin is a credit to all things Swedish.
Its interior employs the kind of far-reaching elements seen only in concept vehicles, particularly the 2-tier center console. The touchpoints, such as the gear shifter, wood-lined cupholder lid, drive-mode selector and ignition switch, occupy the lower tier, while the soft leather armrest rises about an inch higher and sweeps around the console as if to shelter the controls from a harsh winter storm.
Overall, there’s a kind of hypnotic beauty in the sleekly shaped head restraints, the scarcity of buttons and the bulbous metallic-wrapped Bowers & Wilkins audio speaker that rises gently from atop the instrument panel, always in view of the driver.
But Swedish design is not brash, which explains why the nation’s blue and yellow flag stitched into the passenger seat near the left shoulder is smaller than an adult’s thumb.
This is the sixth year for the Wards 10 Best Interiors competition. An extensive package profiling the winners will appear on WardsAuto beginning April 25 and will be featured in the May issue of WardsAuto digital magazine.
Awards will be given to winning automakers at a special ceremony during the WardsAuto Interiors Conference May 11 in Detroit’s Cobo Conference Center.