From subtle tones to the inside of a teenager's gaming computer.
Ambient lighting, or mood lighting if you prefer, divides opinion.
To some, it's a gimmick or novelty, but to others, it adds value to a car. On top of that, there are ambient lighting levels from subtle to Miami club in the early 2000s. Ambient lighting in a vehicle isn't just there to look nice; there's a cynical side to it from automakers. Studies, including one from BMW and the Lighting Engineering Group at the Ilmenau University of Technology in Germany, concluded that ambient lighting might increase the perception of safety and value in a car. Another "might" is that it helps keep drivers awake and alert at night.
The lack of factual conclusions in studies tells us that automakers are looking for ways to sell it to customers. Designers will tell you that ambient lighting makes a space feel larger at night, which is more understandable and perceptible.
What is also real is the psychological upgrade of adding luxury ambient lighting, which is not expensive to implement and can be used as a differentiator with competitors. So, how do the brands that use ambient lighting differentiate their illumination?
Volkswagen's ambient lighting is best described as being on-brand. It tends to be simple and effective.
In non-sporty models, you'll find thin, simple strips from the factory set to an intense blue across the dashboard and door inserts to match the gauge cluster.
In sports trims like the Golf GTI, red is the factory color for the strips and the digital instrument cluster. In the Golf R, red lighting comes on automatically in the Sport mode to match the gauges.
Compared to Volkswagen, Hyundai is discreet with its car and SUV mood lighting, hiding it until the illumination gives it away.
The South Korean brand uses softer colors for factory settings and a range of presets. Still, 64 unique colors and ten different brightness settings are available for customization.
Hyundai also takes ambiance to another level in its infotainment settings with calming environmental sounds like rain, thunder, and even the sounds of an indoor cafe. The Ioniq 6 is where Hyundai has gone a little crazy and allows you to make your car's interior look like a lava lamp exploded inside it.
For the most part, BMW falls between Volkswagen and its straight-ahead ambient lighting and Hyundai's fancifulness.
Unlike Lexus, BMW is as concerned with looking premium and luxurious as well as having those underpinnings in quality and materials. Lexus isn't on this list but is just as capable as BMW of making a luxurious interior, but BMW is always looking for an edge and selling the sizzle and the steak.
As far as balance goes, we're still waiting to see BMW go over the top and into garishness.
Genesis is an extension of Hyundai, so it also has ambient lighting on the menu.
We wouldn't say it's better than Hyundai's; it's implemented better in a more upscale interior. However, on specific models and trim levels, a feature subtly pulls it all together - the glass shifter dial glows up the same color as the rest of the interior lighting just enough to have an effect.
It's subtle but perfectly judged in the Genesis GV80's interior, shown below.
Recently, someone sent me a photo of a car parked outside their business taken at night from an odd angle with little detail of the bodywork.
However, from the purple glow in the window, it was instantly identifiable as a Mercedes. Mercedes does do subtle and tasteful interior lighting. Still, in some of its most upmarket models, like the EQ series example below, the interior looks like it's modeled on a Las Vegas limo specced for stag parties.
It's Mercedes-Benz we're talking about, so you can dial it back to subtle or crank it up so you can feel like you're driving a gaming PC with the complete RGB package added.
Rolls-Royce is all about stylish money-no-object decadence, so the cars and SUVs feature ambient interior lighting.
The headliner is the now famous and expensive optional Starlight that uses fiber optic lights and carefully perforated material to cast an image of a night sky over the car's interior. It sounds gimmicky and vulgar, but it's a stunning effect.
Some automakers like Lexus and Ford are missing a trick by having weak ambient lighting options.
You can tell because the aftermarket is stuffed with ambient lighting kits for both brands and Tesla. If you're a do-it-yourself electronics nerd, you can go a long way with addressable LEDs, a glue gun, a soldering iron, some creativity, and an implementation or five of WLED software on mini ESP32 web servers.
However, it's a lot easier to go with some of the kits on offer, and there are some great companies out there coming up with subtle or colorful interior lights and kits for cars. As it's not built into the infotainment system, you'll likely be controlling the colors, brightness, and scenes using an app, but it'll give you a lot more control so you can be as subtle or as vibrant as you like.