Luxury Cars: 6 New Over-the-Top Options

Courtesy of Rolls Royce
Rolls Royce

Brown interiors are the new black (because, natch, rich Chinese like it) as BMW to Bentley find new ways for drivers to binge -- subtly -- on new automotive bling.

This story first appeared in the March 21-28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Brown Is the New Black

Black leather upholstery became de rigueur for luxury cars during the '80s and '90s -- the influence of industrial design, which favored black, according to Alexandra McGill, lead designer at BMW Group DesignworksUSA. Now, the pendulum is swinging to brown, the traditional choice in auto upholstery, partly to soften the pervasive tech in automobiles. "Brown is a more natural rendition of leather color and speaks to craftsmanship," she says. "Things made of brown materials are typically handcrafted." As Eric Clough, Cadillac's director of interior design, points out: "Brown is a classic color; it comes off as expensive." That's evident in the brown leather in Rolls-Royce's $285,000 2014 Wraith. McGill credits China, whose sheer buying power increasingly influences automobile design trends: "Golds, beiges and browns are really popular there."

Glowing Lighting

Thanks to ambient LED technology, premium interiors have gone from glaring dome lighting to cabins that evoke both the fighter-jet cockpit and the cool vibe of a nightclub. The Rolls-Royce Wraith's signature indulgence is an interior roof embedded with more than 1,300 hand-sewn LEDs meant to conjure a starry night sky. The Mercedes S Class cabin glows softly from 300 strategically placed LEDs in seven color schemes. "Theatrical lighting gives you a sense of spaciousness and augments the cabin's design," says Cadillac's Clough. In some cars, none of the senses is spared: Mercedes' S Class offers a choice of seven fragrances spritzed through the ventilation system.

PHOTOS: Behind the Wheels of Hollywood's Favorite Cars

Quilted Leather Upholstery

"The classic luxury of wood, leather and metal never goes out of style, but the question is: What do you do with it?" says Cadillac's Clough. The answer these days, at least with leather, is lots of quilting and handwork, which is a must in luxury rides from Mercedes, BMW, Porsche and Audi. "There's more and more elaborate use of stitching and huge amounts of embellishments: seams, piping, perforation. It's almost baroque," adds Clough. The origins of the trend can be traced to the posteconomic crash imperative of discreet bling. Nobody sees that fancy leather but you and your cosseted passengers. Advancements in fabrication, notes BMW's McGill, mean that intricate leather detail work that once had to be sewn entirely by hand (and still is in some Bentleys) can be produced digitally and then executed by machine, reducing costs and allowing for more complex patterns.

White Is the New Silver

After more than a decade as the most popular car color, silver finally was supplanted by white in 2013 (silver tied for second with black). Credit Apple's white iPhone -- and the original iPod with its clean white face and stainless-steel back -- for transforming its traditional image as the color of kitchen appliances to its status as a symbol of technological progress. "White is now acceptable on exteriors and interiors," says McGill, and has transcended its stronghold of Asia. "Now, even Europe is buying white cars." For the upscale market, white is a subtle signifier, implying impracticality and the added expense of keeping it presentable. Also, "white is associated with sustainability and clean air," says McGill, which explains why the Porsche Panamera S E-Hybrid is available in white (with eco-green brake calipers).

Heavily lacquered bird's-eye maple is out; a low-gloss natural look is in. "We choose species where the pores in wood are clearly evident" -- like the elm cluster burl in Cadillac's CTS, says Clough. BMW uses renewable species like poplar to create so-called engineered woods, whose grain is uniform and natural-looking minus the imperfections. Says McGill, "You can also make engineered Makassar ebony" -- a trim option in BMW's top-of-the-line 7 Series.

Enter the Bespoke Car

"The Internet has made it so easy to personalize your world," says McGill (above). "That's a necessity for BMW." The carmaker this year will open a facility at its DesignworksUSA studio in Newbury Park, Calif., outside L.A., where customers and a designer can create a car from the wheels up. "You'll get a car that meets all of your personal desires -- we have a vast materials inventory," she says, including paints using scarce pigments and leathers from the hides of pampered cows.