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Cloth Versus Leather

There are two main choices these days when it comes to what the interior designers of new cars put on the seats: cloth and leather. Leather is definitely the material of choice for luxury cars, but if you ever find yourself in a situation where one of the key differences between two variants is what’s on the seats, is it really worth it going for the leather just because it’s posher?  If you’re into keeping up with the Joneses, then this one’s a no-brainer – you go for the more expensive one with the leather – but what if you’re a bit cannier with your cash?

Thankfully, the days of vinyl have gone, so that’s not an option. Those of us who are old enough to remember vinyl seats or who have ridden in classics with this type of upholstery know perfectly well why vinyl seats aren’t found in modern vehicles.  About the only good thing you could say about vinyl was that it was easy to clean. It was slippery when cold or if you had long trousers on. In hot weather and for those wearing shorts, vinyl became sticky but not like spilt jam – more like clingfilm on steroids grabbing bare skin.  It also got really hot on a summer day – add in the hot seat belt buckle on old-style seatbelts and you got your very own personal torture chamber.  I’m shuddering with the memory.

However, back to today.  There you are evaluating two models that are more or less the same apart from the upholstery.  What do you need to say before you say “I’ll go for the one with the leather seats”?

Leather is, of course, a natural material.  It’s the skin of some animal, probably a cow, sheep or possibly a goat.  Given the popularity of beefsteaks around the world and the size of a cattlebeast, what you see on the seats of a luxury car probably came from a cow.  If you’re a vegan or a PETA supporter, then this fact might be the deciding factor for you and you’ll go for the cloth.  However, if you’re omnivorous, then you may see the use of leather as car upholstery as a wise way of using meat byproducts and a sustainable choice (yes, cloth seats are usually acrylic or nylon sourced from plastics).

Here, you might have questions about the difference between Nappa leather and ordinary leather.  Nappa leather is a natural animal skin leather that has been tanned and dyed in a particular way to make it smooth and even.  Nappa leather tends to have a more durable finish and is softer and more pliable.  It’s the softness that adds the extra level of luxury and why the really top-end models are trimmed in Nappa leather rather than common or garden leather.  It also tends to come from something more delicate than cowhide, such as goat or sheep.

Alcantara, however, is an artificial leather – OK, it’s cloth!  It’s stain-resistant and flame-retardant, and it has a scrummy finish that feels like suede.  The flame-retardant properties of Alcantara mean that it’s widely used in racing cars, and this is why it’s popular in sports and supercar models, similar to other racing-inspired accessories and styling.  Alcantara is a brand-name, unlike Nappa leather and all the other seat materials, and it’s produced by one single factory in Italy, which means that it’s a bit more exclusive and more expensive than other cloth.

There are other synthetic leathers around the place.  They’re called things like “PU leather”, “pleather”, “leatherette”, “vegan leather” and “faux leather”.  One company produces a leather substitute made from pineapple fibres but this isn’t used for car seat upholstery – or at least not yet.

The sort of cloth used for upholstering vehicle seats is usually some sort of synthetic material because this tends to be more durable than natural fibres such as wool, linen, tencel or cotton.  Car manufacturers haven’t tried upholstering seats with natural plant-sourced fibres in an attempt to be more sustainable… at least not yet.  Cloth is cheaper than leather because it doesn’t need quite as much cutting, stitching and shaping as leather.  Synthetic cloth comes out of the factory in nice regular shapes of an even and predictable width.  Cows and goats aren’t quite such a nice, regular shape, so leather seats require more work; hence the extra cost.

So what are the pros and cons of each upholstery material type?

Leather:

Pros: Natural material from a renewable source, soft (especially in the case of Nappa), durable, looks amazing, smells nice, doesn’t give off nasty chemical gases

Cons: Stains easily, gets scuffed and scratched by doggy paws and small children’s shoes, absorbs bad smells, comes from a dead animal that may have been killed for the skin, doesn’t like getting wet and especially hates salty seawater

Cloth:

Pros: Cheap, comes in a range of colours and patterns, more forgiving of children, dogs and seawater

Cons: Synthetic material from a non-renewable source, can give off weird gases when new, doesn’t look quite as upmarket as leather.

Alcantara:

Pros: Flame-resistant, stain-resistant, comes in a range of colours, racing heritage, nice suede-like feel, exclusive and upmarket

Cons: A beast to clean, synthetic material from non-renewable sources

To sum up the bottom line about what sort of fabric you want under your bottom, it really depends on your lifestyle and your values.  If you’ve got messy small children or dogs that jump on the seat, then leather isn’t for you.  If you love to spend heaps of time at the beach and you are likely to get salt water on your clothes and other bits that you are likely to chuck onto the back seat, leather probably isn’t for you either.  Cloth is also going to appeal to those who want to save a few bucks, as it’s cheaper.  Leather looks gorgeous and is a natural material from a renewable resource, but if you’re more of a vegan-and-PETA type, then you’ll steer clear of it.

And if you have a classic car with a vinyl seat, do yourself a favour and buy a set of seat covers if you haven’t already!

6 comments

  1. Greg Harris says:

    This article is quite misleading in regard to leather. Probably 95% of modern cars use leather coated with polyurethane (PU) to seal it. This makes modern leather more resistant to stains, scuffing etc. I just purchase a high end new vehicle with leather and they are indeed coated with a film for protection. To easily prove this go to your auto store and have look at the plethora of leather conditioners/cleaners and you will find they almost all mention new style auto leather, some even give a test to determine type. Most say they are not suitable for older unfinished/natural leather.
    Progress has been made and so far I think my “modern” leather seats perform and look better than cloth.

    October 25th, 2018 at 11:38 am

  2. joe says:

    re Vinyl seats,
    you left out the most important cause of their demise!
    the Vinyl chloride gas given off from the seats when the car was left in the sun ,caused cancer and the death of several young children!

    October 25th, 2018 at 11:42 am

  3. Bruce McLennan says:

    Leather and vinyl suffer from the same problems. Bloody hot in the heat of the day and horribly cold in winter. Cloth seats are far superior and cost less. There is something wrong with the luxury end of the vehicle market where leather is the only option.

    October 25th, 2018 at 6:37 pm

  4. labrat says:

    Joe – what a load! Sounds like you’ve been reading one of those websites where the author’s eyes flicker when conspiracy theories come up. There is no vinyl chloride gas coming from the seats. All of the vinyl chloride has polymerized – there are no double bonds left. PVC is difficult to dispose of however – it requires special incinerators with sophisticated exhaust gas scrubbers. It went out of favour because of the properties mentioned in the article. Leather seating is not such an exclusive material any more. A little bit of bargaining at the time of sale (which Private Fleet can manage for you) can mean you can snag leather seats for no or little extra. And as another respondent has said, the polyurethane coating on modern leathers is very durable, and responds well to a little TLC.

    October 26th, 2018 at 8:17 am

  5. Graeme Andrews says:

    I have a 2016 Ford Wildtrak that has real leather interior and am about to pick up a new 2019 Wildtrak which says it has accented leather. What is that, is it any good.

    Graeme.

    October 26th, 2018 at 1:45 pm

  6. Dave Conole says:

    “Leather accents” and “leather accented” mean the interior of the vehicle or the seats have leather touches or accents, but are not wholly leather.” according to one definition.

    October 26th, 2018 at 3:20 pm