Europeans have long set the standard for best car interiors. American automakers for years tried to mimic the robust yet clean lines of European vehicle interiors, but on a budget. It's never quite gelled.
With the Buick Encore, however, General Motors hit the nail on the head. The Encore takes American luxury sensibilities and perfectly melds them with the world-class standards of Buick's European competitors.
Although the Encore starts under $30,000, buyers won't necessarily be able to tell by simply looking at it, especially from the interior. The Encore is compact. The interior, however, is anything but. The crossover body style lends itself to ample interior space, even for tall passengers, while keeping exterior dimensions at a minimum.
Nicely integrated in the well-formed dash is Buick's 7-inch IntelliLink infotainment system with 6-speaker audio system. IntelliLink is not only great to look at but extremely versatile, with AM/FM/SiriusXM, SiriusXM Travel Link and Tune Select, USB port, rearview camera and Bluetooth wireless connectivity.
Delightfully, Buick has installed -- for the first time on any of its vehicles -- Bose Active Noise Cancellation technology, which uses the speaker system to cancel out road noise, making the Encore cabin extremely quiet.
It wasn't the roominess of the Encore that won us over but instead the features and details. Ice-blue interior accent lighting, lots of leather and dozens of power-adjustable features make the Encore interior a very comfortable and upscale place to be.
The Dodge Dart stands out on our list of best car interiors in a few key ways. First, it's not quite as visually refined as the others. Second, it's perhaps the most tech savvy. It's fair to say the Dodge Dart is a bit boy-racer and a bit tech-geek -- but in a good way.
At first glance, the Dart interior looks like that of any other compact economy sedan with cloth, manually adjusted seats, a well-formed dash and a couple cup holders. Fire up the engine, however, and the Dart comes alive with several brightly lit screens and red accent lighting.
In place of a standard all-analogue instrument cluster, Dodge installed a 7-in Thin Film Transistor (TFT) screen that turns on at the start of the engine with customizable, animated and easy-to-read gauges.
Just to the right, in the center of the dash, buyers will find the optional 8.4-in Uconnect touchscreen display. Better than most infotainment systems in cars that cost twice as much, the Dart's Uconnect system allows for satellite navigation, climate control, Bluetooth pairing with smartphones, weather and traffic information and, of course, CD/AM/FM/SiriusXM music playback.
The Dart designers were clever. Rather than using fake wood or cheap-looking plastic trim bits, they decided to highlight the Dart interior with, well, light. Encasing both the TFT instrument cluster and the Uconnect system is a ruby-red accent light that Dodge boasts is reminiscent of the Dart's racetrack-inspired headlights.
Stepping away from the light show that is the Dart dashboard, the rest of the interior is top-notch. The Dart's seats are among the most comfortable, not just in the compact sedan segment but in the entire automotive market. Distinctively, the Dart's front passenger seat can be lifted up to reveal a storage compartment.
While not as easily mistaken for a high-end luxury car as some vehicles on this list, the Dodge Dart interior is spacious, welcoming and technologically engaging.
While other cars on this list have interiors that feel large in spite of their diminutive exterior size, the Pathfinder interior doesn't just feel expansive, it is expansive. The Pathfinder boasts the largest passenger volume of any car in its class, with best-in-class front seat headroom and legroom, and also class-exclusive reclining third-row seating -- all for under $30,000.
With the new Pathfinder, Nissan wanted full-size vehicle comfort in a mid-size SUV. It succeeded. The interior visual design might be slightly lacking, as in some trim levels the Pathfinder becomes a sea of beige. However, what it lacks in visual dynamics, it makes up for with comfort, space and amenities.
The Pathfinder interior was designed with families at its core. The second row features Nissan's EZ Flex seating system that gives 5.5 inches of additional second-row seating, allowing passengers to get in and out of the third row with ease. Both the second- and third-row seats fold flat for extra cargo space, and designers even found another 8.4 cu ft of space on the interior for the 2013 model year.
One feature we especially like is the additional cargo area beneath the rear-load floor. In that area, Nissan installed the optional Bose Acoustic Wave System resonator but also left room for smaller loose cargo items.
The Pathfinder infotainment system offers the same features as most of its competitors, with navigation, Bluetooth and satellite radio. Where it differs, however, is with its Around View Monitor. Pop the Pathfinder into reverse and the in-dash display shows a 360-degree, virtual bird's-eye-view image of the car and its surroundings. This system, while not only jaw-dropping, is also extremely useful for maneuvering in unfamiliar parking areas. Although similar to the Mercedes-Benz system, you won't find anything like it in any other cars under $30,000.
The Volkswagen Beetle has come a long way throughout its life, but it also has managed to circle back a bit. The original Beetle introduced European simplicity and compactness to an oversized American auto market. When it was reintroduced in the 1990s as the New Beetle, the interior had a more feminine, cartoonish feel, with rounded lines and a flower vase in the dash.
This third-generation Beetle returns to the essence of the original with modern safety and technology features seamlessly rolled into one.
Volkswagen will be the first to point out that the interior of the current Beetle is much more masculine and sporty, with its additional analogue dials jutting from the center of the dash and its flat-bottom steering wheel -- both of which we love.
The Beetle interior is very much German luxury on a budget -- and we mean that in a good way. Buyers will find the lines clean and simple, with high-tech, easy-to-use features. At the center of the retro-inspired dash is a color touchscreen with optional navigation and Bluetooth.
From the exterior, onlookers will clearly see the roofline has changed the look of the Beetle. This reshaping has changed the interior, as well, which is less cathedral-like. Surprisingly, this reformed roof allows for more interior space for occupants -- up 4 cu ft over the last generation, with 1.9 inches of extra front legroom and an additional 2.5 inches of front shoulder room.
The current Beetle interior has shrugged off its former "flower power" and now embraces its rich German sporting heritage without losing its iconic appeal.
The interior of the C30 is a bit older than other vehicles on this list, but it nonetheless deserves a place in the top five best interiors under $30,000.
The Volvo C30, as one might expect, perfectly embodies its sleek, safe and simple Scandinavian heritage. Ignore the steering wheel and the interior layout is nearly perfectly symmetrical, which is rather rare in the world of modern automotive interiors. Not every automaker could pull off such a design, but Volvo has.
Unlike other vehicles on this list, the C30 can be fitted with an extremely high-end interior for less money than one might think. Though the C30 features premium finishes like its much more expensive Volvo-line cousins, the C30 remains affordable. We'll admit the interior of the C30 isn't very big, but Volvo designers made clever use of the small interior space with room for four adult passengers and a distinctive all-glass rear hatch door.
For customers not wanting to step up to the full in-dash navigation unit, Volvo has paired with Garmin to offer a $795 Portable Navigation System that customers can affix perfectly to their C30 dash. Specially programmed for Volvo, the Garmin unit will direct drivers to the nearest Volvo dealer, should they need service. The portable unit also includes a built-in MP3 player that will play music and audio books wirelessly through the vehicle sound system.
One feature we love about Volvo, which might come as a surprise to some customers, is its outstanding audio acoustics. Volvo, despite its understated demeanor, is fond of fitting its cars with powerful sound systems. Since Volvos are so solidly built, the interior becomes a bit of a drum, making for an outstanding audio experience, which is rare in the sub-$30,000 mark.