Do Luxury Car Interiors Grow On Trees?

Tony Sterbenc
by Tony Sterbenc

True story: as a kid, every fall I’d ride my single-speed bike three miles to the local Chevy dealer. Inexplicably, the dealer staff let this mouthy, curious kid sit in their expensive, newly launched iron. In the autumn of 1968, I clambered into a brand spankin’ new ’69 Impala. Its lines were angular where the old ones were bulbous. As a “Chevy man” (boy), I was ready to show it some major love. But one detail grabbed my eye and just wouldn’t let go. Unlike previous Impalas, the dash and doors were covered with very large expanses of fake wood. A pet peeve was born.

If you haven’t spent quality time in a ‘70s GM car, you don’t what I’m talking about. The fake wood of the day was so bad it couldn’t fool a 13-year-old brand apostle who wanted to be fooled. The material had strange angular and cylindrical indentations: the obvious products of metal stamping. The screen-printing dots were so coarse they could be seen with the naked eye from a normal viewing distance. In short, the Impala’s fake wood made today’s Buick LaCrosse look like yesterday’s Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow.

Decades later, I read there was a GM CEO who had a thing for fake wood. He thought the public would regard it as classy. So he ordered it installed into virtually every higher trim level GM product. Yet another clear case of the blind trying to lead the [perceived] dumb.

Fast forward a few decades, GM’s in decline, the transplants have arrived and horrendous fake wood is still with us. For example, the Hyundai Azera’s faux timber radiates a half-coagulated blood maroon unlike any tree product on planet Earth. It blights the dash, doors, console edges, shift knob and interior door handles. Worst of all, fake wood informs the majority of the steering wheel. It’s bad enough to make you long for the lower-line Azera with its all-leather helm.

Why do they do it? Most of the other materials that make the Azera’s living room so inviting are the real deal. The leather actually once said moo. The fabric over your head is real fabric. The gauges are real neon (I think). Why ruin this classy cabin by counterfeiting the one element that has no function whatsoever except to provide luxury?

It’s true: wood really has no business being in a car, save its historical connection and its aesthetic appeal. While other materials are longer lasting, more practical and cheaper, real wood takes us back to more elemental days, when these machines really were horseless carriages. It delights us with a sensuality that no man-made material can recreate. Fake wood? Fake boobs. Same pointless (no pun intended) thing.

Anyway, I admire VW for putting real timber in Passats and Jettas. I’m cheered to learn that Volvo has added a real-wood option as a replacement for the standard polymer lumber (until I learned it’s bundled with the accursed headroom-robbing sunroof). I even took one-and-a-half looks (I can’t sincerely say I got to the second-look stage) when Ford offered a hand-me-down of Lincoln’s real-wood wheel on the woebegone Taurus.

Do carmakers research this stuff, or do they just copy each other? Does the public really like fake wood better than no fake wood? Does the fake stuff come close enough, for enough of us, that the carmakers profit more by saving the cost of the real grows-on-trees stuff? Clearly, the wood thing has become a monster eating away the inside of my brain.

A sincere question, though, for my audience: does anyone out there know how much it costs to put real wood in a car interior? Is burnishing and fitting a bit of genuine elm so prohibitive that automakers must restrict its deployment to the tippy-top of their lines?

Acura steps up for the RL — but pulls the punch for everything beneath it. Infiniti boasts real wood on the G, but on the hidden edge of the ashtray/bin door the “wood grain” mysteriously disappears just as if it were made of ink. I, personally, would pay real money for the genuine article, excepting the painfully obvious sticky-back aftermarket add-ons (and yes, I’ve even looked hard at those). I would even almost sort of start liking a Lexus ES, just to have its shiny God-given veneers.

Some time back, I threw down a mental challenge to myself: If I were the poor soul who had to rescue Buick, what would I do? I ultimately decided I’d offer real leather and real wood on even the lowliest Buick in the showroom as standard equipment. It’s too late to win on technology, but they can still deliver the materials of real luxury.

Can’t they?

Tony Sterbenc
Tony Sterbenc

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  • Willbodine Willbodine on Jul 20, 2007

    I'm glad someone mentioned Maserati. The most beautiful leather I've ever seen in a car. And their wood trim is top-drawer as well, plus that wonderful Italian sense of style.

  • 213Cobra 213Cobra on Jul 23, 2007

    Wood done well can contribute to perception of value and specialness. However, while I can accept wood as an interior element in a vehicle, I don't seek or require it. Given how real wood is finished to meet modern standards of durability, most people don't seem to be able to tell the difference. A thick polyurethane finish obstructs the tactile rewards of wood from reaching your fingertips. I have a couple dozen high-end guitars, so I have intimate contact with wood every day. Even a properly thin nitrocellulose finish hides some of wood's tactile reward, but such a finish transmits the real character of wood with far more tactile and visual transparency than polyurethane. But Poly takes much more punishment and won't develop finish checks. So synthetic finishes over real wood rule in automobile interiors. Satin just gives you the illusion of texture. So now people are easily confused. My Cadillac XLR-V has Zingana wood for some of its interior trim. I've seen raw and hand-finished Zingana, and the Caddy's timber is unmistakably the real thing. Yet more than one reviewer and non-owner amateur commentator on the web have criticized the car's "fake wood trim." The same error has been made on other cars using woods with dramatic or vivid grains. Setting the Wayback Machine to my early driving days, I recall the wood dashes in some of my British sports cars. They were teak or walnut veneer on ply for stability, and oil-finished. They felt like real wood, and for people who left their cars out in direct summer sun (and rain) with the top stowed, those panels quickly demonstrated why wood isn't a great material for a car. UV, condensation, temperature swings, freezing -- all conspired to crack, fade and flake wood. I stayed ahead of it through simple preventative maintenance: periodic cleaning and light oil treatment, and I didn't leave my car parked anywhere with the top down. Those precautions eliminated the problem for me, but no company can count on similar customer follow-through today. I'm no fan of plastic wood, but fake aluminum is worse. Every dead-tillered, mouse-powered Camry or Solara I've been forced to accept at an airport rental counter has scratched, chipped and flaking silver paint marring its esteemed (here, anyway) interior. Carbon fiber? This stuff is showing up on watchfaces in $30,000+ timepieces and it looks like crap there too. FAKE carbon fiber? Well, why not? How many carbon fibers do you find freely available in nature? Aluminum? Well, OK, but check that it's more than foil and know that your first dent is only a matter of time. Alcantara has emerged as a luxury item in interiors, which is a laugh since it isn't leather at all and costs much less. But it is functionally superior to suede on high-wear surfaces and feels like a luxury item. It is, of course, synthetic -- a non-woven microfiber fabric. Yes, there's a reason to look to Maserati for inspiration. Everyone else is a piker by comparison. Yeah, Ferrari has it too, but they don't have Maser's visual flow. Aston-Martin is nearly there. But even a few minutes in a Maserati Coupe or a Quattroporte will amply prove that it takes both materials and shapes, plus careful, holistic designing of the tactile experience to make the luxury car real. If there's a little wood in the mix, be it. With Maserati in the market, anything not Maserati is rendered undifferentiated in interior quality. Really, next to a Maser, you can just pick the powertrain and chassis you want, because there's no meaningful difference in interiors between a Mercedes, Cadillac, Lexus, Audi, BMW, Lincoln or Infiniti relative to that. Phil

  • 3-On-The-Tree I don’t think Toyotas going down.
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