Many buyers consider interior upholstery choices in cars to be either cloth or leather. While those two materials are still among the most popular picks in new vehicles, more types of synthetic materials now cover car seats. And increasingly, automakers are picking so-called "leatherette" over real leather.
Leatherette is a common term for artificial leather, and it's used as a substitute for genuine animal hide not only in inexpensive cars but also in very high-end models.
Is it good or bad, and is it for you at all? Here's a rundown of leather versus leatherette and the pros and cons of both.
In most automotive applications, leather comes from cows, and the manufacturing process involves multiple steps. The leather quality depends on the animal type and breed, the climate in which it was raised, the layer of the hide used, and the skill of the workers performing the processing and tanning.
It's then stitched and applied to seats, and in some cases, the upper door panels, dashboard top, and even the headliner and grab handles. Typically smooth or lightly grained, suede and Nubuck are sometimes used for car interiors because of their softness and added grip on clothing fabrics.
Leatherette is an all-encompassing term for a synthetic material that looks and feels much like leather, like a softer and more forgiving form of vinyl. A fabric base is covered in plastic or PVC (polyvinyl chloride) to mimic animal hide. Designers can easily alter the grain and appearance through this process.
Other often-used terms for leatherette are faux leather, fake leather, synthetic leather, pleather, or vegan leather. In automotive terms, leatherette is a common name for the material. Some automakers use terms like MB-Tex (Mercedes-Benz), V-Tex (Volkswagen), NuLuxe (Lexus), SofTex (Toyota), and Sensatec (BMW). Alcantara and Ultrasuede are other synthetic materials used in vehicle interiors to mimic suede.
Even in vehicles with leather-covered seats, forms of leatherette are sometimes used to cover the top of the dashboard, headlining, and grab handles.
The Pros of Leather
High-quality leather is soft and pliable, making it a comfortable material for automotive interiors. That feel is strongly associated with luxury car interiors, giving an upmarket aura even in a Toyota Sienna minivan. Genuine leather also has a fresh aroma, again evocative of high-end goods like jackets, boots, and handbags.
If allergies are a worry for you or the people you regularly transport, leather may be a good choice since allergens don't become trapped in the material. But buyers also like leather because of its resistance to coffee spills, rainwater, and many stains.
Leather remains durable if it's regularly cleaned, especially if the car seats endure years of hard use. It's essential to follow the manufacturer's instructions when choosing leather upholstery cleaning products. The wrong products can strip the natural oils from your leather.
While leather does require some care, it will help the resale value of a car if the upholstery is kept in excellent condition. Its resistance to stains over cloth or velour keeps interiors looking newer longer, while it also shows the next owner you didn't skimp on every option.
The Cons of Leather
Leather upholstery is often optional equipment, even on premium brands. It can cost from around $1,000 to more than $3,000 when it's bundled with features such as powered seats, heated seats, and a sunroof. Especially on mainstream brands like Ford and Nissan, it's often restricted to specific trim levels, too.
Despite its durability, leather can fade as a result of exposure to the sun's rays. Leather also requires some maintenance to keep the material in its best condition, including treatments to help prevent the degradation of aging.
While most modern cars get leather treated for UV exposure, sunlight is still hard on the upholstery and can lead to shrinking or cracking over time. That is especially the case in convertibles or vehicles with large glass areas. Leather can also get extremely hot to the touch when left in the sun, and your skin can unpleasantly stick to it. Conversely, it can be downright frigid in freezing temperatures before the heated seats kick in.
While it's more stain and liquid-resistant than fabrics, leather seats can still get stained with ink, liquids, or dirt. Without regular cleaning and conditioning, they can become brittle and prone to tears. Pet owners should also take care when putting animals with sharp claws or nails on the seats. Some wear on the seats is expected after a while, but it can be very noticeable on dark leather upholsteries as the dye wears off. Repairs to rips and tears are expensive, too.
The Pros of Leatherette
In modern cars, leatherette upholstery often looks so much like actual leather that it can be hard to tell the difference. Some automakers do a convincing job of treating the upholstery and stitching it to look a lot like leather, sometimes to the point that the real thing doesn't look as good as the imitation leather.
Because leatherette isn't a porous material, it is waterproof, making it easy to wipe away spills and dirt with only a damp cloth. That's an advantage for car owners with kids. The low-maintenance material doesn't require any time-consuming maintenance or cleaning agents other than periodic wiping.
Being waterproof also means it's much harder to get leatherette to crack or shrink. It stays looking new longer and can take more punishment from sharp claws or careless passengers.
Leatherette has the added advantage of being animal-friendly, as long as it's not made from scraps of leather. But it's often perceived as a vegan option by automakers for customers who want to avoid leather products altogether.
The Cons of Leatherette
As a synthetic material, leatherette is only as good as its engineers made it. Some automakers are great at making it appear like leather, while others can make its plastic roots incredibly apparent. It can appear shiny and, when not appropriately grained, be extremely slippery. That's not only a problem in the rain or snow, but it also doesn't grip the driver into place very well when the road gets twisty.
While it can take more of a beating, leatherette can wear out as all materials do. But instead of gradually losing its color or thinning, leatherette seats show the cloth fibers underneath, creating an even more unpleasant look than worn leather.
Leatherette is arguably more susceptible to temperature variation, becoming sticky and hot in warm weather and icy to the touch in the cold. And because it's considered a lower-grade option on many models, features such as heated or ventilated seats may not be available with leatherette.
And while it might be free of animal byproducts, leatherette isn't an environmental choice because of the polyurethane and fossil fuel-based chemicals used during the manufacturing process.
What's the Right Choice?
Today's leatherette is nothing like the vinyl seats from budget 1970s cars. Many automakers make it look and feel like leather, even offering numerous colors and patterns. Conversely, there's nothing like the smell of genuine leather in a new car, especially if that's how you define luxury.
Consider your priorities, the climate in your area, and your budget. Think about whether you'll be hauling kids or pets regularly, the amount of time you plan on owning the vehicle, environmental and ethical factors of the two materials, and the amount of time you're willing to put into taking care of your car's interior.