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Why the feel of a car's interior matters

The Volvo XC60's driver and passenger seats.
Brian Champagne

Volvo loaned us their XC60. First I’ll describe it for your ears and eyes. It is a crossover-utility thing that’s a plug-in hybrid, meaning it can start its day all-electric, and when the charge runs out it goes regular hybrid, claiming 57 miles per gallon when you add things up with EPA magic figures. It claims 400 horsepower when you add the up two-liter super and turbocharged gas engine with 87 horsepower from the electric motor.

It’s so smooth and quiet that those sounds are from cars next to it. The stereo can make it sound like Tom Williams is doing his show in a jazz club... or the Gutenberg concert hall.

And now I’d like my fingernails to describe how it feels to your fingertips. Just in front of shotgun, there’s a hard-plastic pebble finish on the glove box, a soft pebble texture just above, a smooth chrome strip, a light wood look, dark leather with stitching and above that, vents with a smooth piano finish.

The steering wheel has stitching and at least three textures. All knobs are either dimpled like a golf ball or piano smooth, and the shifter is chiseled clear crystal. It looks like a mini-award, and draws your hand to it.

In 2010, Science Magazine told us that touch is the first sense we develop and affects how we get information. Experiments showed that heavy things make people look more important, rough things made interactions more difficult, or rough.

The attention to what you touch in the XC60 makes us think Volvo is aware of the importance of what you touch.

Hyundai was aware of this more than 20 years ago. I went to the press introduction of the 2000 Elantra GT, when it was still kinda cheap. They pointed out the thin rubber pieces on the parts of the cheap plastic A/C dials that you touch, and told us how those tiny pieces made people feel like the car was nicer. From then on, Hyundais have felt better and better.

But they’re not at Volvo-touch level. Everything is so tactilly luxurious, the only thing not the stern navigation voice.

Brian Champagne grew up in the less-famous Central California but left after starting his television news career there. He worked 22 years in news for NBC, ABC, Fox, and CBS affiliates in four markets. He served as chief photographer for KTXL-TV in Sacramento, but worked in front of the camera, too.