Demand for vehicles with extra rows of seats has given suppliers a chance to both show their design capability and demonstrate an understanding of consumer needs.
Toyota unveiled its new European Corolla Verso at the Geneva motor show with second and third row seats that fold flat into the car floor.
The outgoing model has only been on sale in Europe for a little more than two years. But Toyota decided it needed a seven-seat entrant, no doubt with an eye on the Volkswagen Touran that debuted last year.
"It is clear that the rear business is growing extremely fast; it is becoming a very important business," says Gerard Chochoy, executive vice president for the automotive seating business group at Faurecia, the French seating specialist. "We see significant development on the second, but moreover on the third row."
Faurecia supplies the third row seats for Volkswagen's Caddy Life, an MPV also launched in Geneva. Johnson Controls supplies the Touran's third row seats only. Sitech, a Volkswagen subsidiary, supplies the front five seats.
The new Verso's complete seating system is supplied by TakaNichi, a Toyota keiretsu company.
Spanish supplier Grupo Antolin will supply the second and third row seats for Citroën's Xsara Picasso replacement in 2005 or 2006. The current Picasso has only two rows of seats.
Europe's seating market is 85% outsourced to independent suppliers. In North America, the entire market is outsourced and nearly every recent seating innovation has come from a supplier.
The expertise that suppliers like Faurecia have had to develop gives them a good understanding of all the factors involved in design and manufacturing.
The core skills involved in complete seat design at Faurecia are concentrated in four areas: safety; comfort; space management; and increasingly, quality and fit and finish, said Chochoy in an interview with SupplierBusiness.com.
Current class-leading third row seats now stow flat into the floor rather than being removable.
OEM demands for quality and functionality mean growth opportunities aren't without difficulties.
For example, seats are safety-critical parts. That means destructive testing and validation costs are unavoidable.
Price pressure on seating is high and the commonality that could generate savings is hard to achieve.
"Any time you change the floorpan or the vehicle ingress and egress points you have to address seat design," says Bob Adams, vice president of manufacturing at Camaco, a Tier 2 frame maker based in Novi, Michigan.
Savings can be achieved in components such as seat heaters and motors, but in the non-luxury segments these parts are mostly restricted to the front seats.
The value of seating systems was once split into equal thirds between driver, front passenger and rear seats. Now the split is roughly one-half for the front and one-half for the rear, says Chochoy.
The average price of a five-seat system is $US650. The price of a seven-seat system would be higher.
Suppliers have shown they can deliver highly capable systems to help OEMs compete in the maturing multi-passenger vehicle segments.
"We can bring extra value in the comfort level" of rear seats, said Chochoy.
Seat heating and cooling also have growth potential and the integration of new safety systems like occupant sensing is "definitely a way to enrich the product."