August 18, 2011

Confession #28: It's all about the touch

People like to touch things, that's just a fact. So when automakers design an interior, it had better be made of some satisfying materials that give off positive feelings when used. We spend a lot of time touching a knob to adjust the air conditioning, a button to open or close a window and a lever to change gears. 

Nothing gets a car reviewer (often ones from Consumer Reports) giddier than a soft-touch dashboard, the ones where your finger leaves a dimple in the dash when pressure is applied. That's in comparison to old plastic dashboards that sometimes resembled the plastic holding your See's chocolate in place in the box. 

2012 Volkswagen Passat SEL (VW of America photo)
I was wandering by the local Volkswagen dealer the other day and walked up to the new Passat. Now the exterior is one thing. It's a sharp-suited sedan, very Teutonic in comparison to the artsy Hyundai Sonata and conservative-but-somehow-not-right Japanese competition. Even though the much-ballyhooed, American-made Passat is a lot cheaper than the old car, it looks expensive on the outside.

2012 VW Passat SEL
(VW of America photo)

It's a similar story on the inside. In the top-tier SEL TDI model I sat in, with beige leather and convincing wood trim, it's a nice place to be. But while the top of the dash is nicely padded, the lower parts around the glove box and center controls is not. It looks nice, but doesn't feel as nice as I was hoping. Worse, the heating knobs aren't as nice as they look – VW clearly cheaped out on these. The lid for the cupholders also felt thin. 

2012 VW CC interior
(VW of America photo)
I had a chuckle when the salesman said a customer thought the interior of the Passat was nicer than the more expensive, German-made CC. I'm sorry, but I've spent lots of time touching the CC's innards. It just isn't. The CC – and the old Passat – felt like Audi interiors. The CC feels like a contender for a $30-40,000 luxury car. 

2012 VW Jetta SEL interior
(VW of America photo)

Admittedly, the Passat I was in was a fully decked-out diesel model for $33,000, which is a steal considering a comparable Fusion Hybrid is much more and the TDI does 43 highway MPG. And it's way better than the Jetta. A quick back-to-back comparison with the Passat's little brother revealed it's worth to make the step up to the midsize sedan. Nothing in a $21,000 Jetta SE felt particularly good to the touch and even the parts of the door armrest that used to be swathed in a soft covering are now thin, molded plastic.

2011 Chevrolet Cruze LTZ interior
(General Motors photo)
That's a worry for VW, since at basically the same prices the Chevrolet Cruze has an immensely satisfying interior. Switches are nicely damped, knobs move with a pleasing weight and the dash is covered in an interesting combination of padded material and fabric. Not only does the Chevy look good, it feels good.

And Chevy's not the only mainstream brand making interiors that are about as good as ones in BMWs from a decade-or-so ago. The Americans and Koreans and some of the Japanese have stepped up their game a lot with better fits and better finishes to accompany pleasing designs, going for real wood or aluminum to accompany those squishy dashtops. Buttons and switches and materials you touch regularly should look and feel good. It's reassuring to know it's going to work every time, and that's important if you're going to feel good about your purchase. 

That validates the obsession for soft materials in interiors. But really, I don't plan on constantly poking the top of my dashboard.