Leather has long been considered the ultimate status symbol when it comes to car upholstery, but there are plenty of die-hard fans of cloth seats as well. But is one better than the other? Both have their benefits and drawbacks, so the real question in the debate over leather vs. cloth seats is which one makes the most sense for you?
Like it or not, most car buyers are on a budget, so that alone may determine which option you choose. Cloth seats come standard in most models, while leather seats are often more expensive and are sometimes bundled into costly option packages. This is due to the simple difference in material cost--leather has to be tanned and aged in a time-intensive process, while cloth is ready to use immediately.
Leather seating can add several thousand dollars to the price of a vehicle. Even with that, you may not get full leather seats, as some manufacturers still use cloth for the backs and inserts of their leather seats. Even many luxury vehicles actually come standard with faux leather (leatherette) rather than the real thing. While automakers do specify that this material isn’t genuine leather, the seller or the dealer may call it leather anyway. The extended leather option, which has actual full-leather seating, may cost even more.
For many buyers who care about style and image, leather seats are often the way to go. People have long associated the sleek, smooth surface of high-quality leather with luxury. However, you don't have to completely sacrifice style with cloth seats. Manufacturers have long been offering more stylish cloth colors, patterns and textures in response to consumer preference. Models like the Volkswagen Golf even offer stylish plaid seats that some buyers prefer over the more mundane dark leather.
It may seem obvious that cloth is the superior choice if you want a low-maintenance vehicle. Real leather upholstery requires regular cleaning and conditioning with specialized products. If you skip this step, you may find your leather fading, cracking and generally looking worn out sooner than you’d like. Most full-service car washes have experienced crew members who can take care of that for you, but those cleaning costs start adding up and you still have to find something to do while you wait for them to finish.
On the other hand, cloth seats typically don't require much more than a quick vacuum and shampoo when they start getting a bit dirty, which saves you plenty of time. The main drawback of cloth seats is that if they do require a deep clean, can be more difficult.
Finished leather is a non-porous surface, so you can quickly wipe away most stains and spills. Cloth absorbs any liquids and can even get dirt ground into it, which means you may have to use a steam cleaner or other special tool to clean it. Some materials, such as ink or oil, may set in permanently. Odors also tend to absorb into cloth faster than into leather, which causes that new car smell to fade quickly and food, pet and other less pleasant smells to take its place. It's also a good idea to get your cloth seats treated with a stain guard every few years to help keep them looking new.
Car seats are the main point of contact drivers and passengers have with the car, so they're all about comfort. Good quality leather can have a luxuriously soft and supple feel, but cheap leather (or leatherette) may feel hard or brittle.
Pet owners also sometimes report that their four-legged friends have trouble staying in place on slick leather seats when going for car rides. Meanwhile, cloth seats are generally soft, plush and supportive.
Leather and cloth react to heat differently, so you may want to consider your climate when deciding between the two options. Leather seats are notorious for getting blisteringly hot on when you’ve parked your car in direct sunlight for hours, thanks to the heat buildup in a closed vehicle. This can be a real problem. On a hot enough day, you can get a painful, lingering burn in just a couple of seconds if you sit on a hot leather seat with bare skin. It can also get hot enough to be uncomfortable even through clothing, and you may find yourself sweating uncomfortably.
Leather seats also lose heat fast in cold weather, which means you may be sitting on a cold seat on winter days even if the sun is pouring in through the windows. Of course, manufacturers are well aware of that problem and now you can get many cars with heated seats (in cloth or leather) to help take the edge off that icy leather during chilly weather.
Cloth, on the other hand, stays relatively consistent in any weather. It might warm up a bit on hot days or be a little cold on chilly ones, but it doesn't reach the same extremes that leather does, especially when it comes to absorbing summer heat. If you often have to park outdoors on hot summer days, cloth seats may help you avoid the dreaded leather burn.
One area where leather pulls ahead of cloth is when considering the resale value of your car. You won't get the full cost of adding brand-new leather seating back when you sell it, but used vehicles with leather seats typically sell for more than their cloth-upholstered counterparts.
The exact amount varies depending on many other factors including the age, condition and mileage of the car, but you may be able to get up to half of the original cost back as long as the seats are still in good condition. If you neglected the necessary maintenance, however, don't count on much of a boost. Cracked and damaged leather seats can scare away buyers.
If you or a family member suffers from allergies, leather seats have another advantage. Cloth seats create a porous environment for dust, pollen and pet dander to settle into. Even a thorough vacuuming might not get rid of all of it, especially if you like to drive with your windows down or regularly take your pet for rides in the car.
Leather, on the other hand, has a smooth, non-porous surface that makes it difficult for common allergens to accumulate and stick. Thus, a quick vacuum followed by a good wipe-down will remove most of them.
Both leather and cloth upholstery have their pros and cons, so there's no right answer in the cloth vs. leather seat debate. Whether you prefer the low-maintenance comfort of cloth or prefer the sleek, luxurious look and feel of leather, the important thing is that you get an option that fits your lifestyle.