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There was a time when leather was all the rage. You couldn’t go anywhere without running into someone wearing leather pants, sit on a leather couch, or run into somebody with a fancy leather jacket. It even became an SNL skit. While the material’s popularity hasn’t waned, it’s fallen out of favor with large parts of the population that demand the ethical treatment for animals. Right on.
The same has held true for the auto industry, where car companies have shifted from exclusively using leathers and animal-derived materials in their premium models to leatherette and other synthetic materials. The bad news is that you’ll have to dig a little deeper into the classified ads to find a car with real leather, but the good news is that most synthetic leathers and upholstery materials feel just about as good as the real thing.
The Drive’s editors will never try to convince you that synthetic materials feel or look as spectacular as real leather, but we’ll be among the first to stand up and tell you that there’s no serious downside to having a car with faux leather. Let’s dive in.
So, You’re Saying Leatherette Isn’t Leather. What Is It?
Well, depending on your car, the “flavor” of leatherette you get could be slightly different. In general, synthetic leathers are made from some plastic or vinyl derivative and are made to look and feel like real leather. The degree to which the automaker can pull that off will depend largely on the brand and how much they spend on producing it, but they’re usually a decent (see: not perfect) stand-in for the real thing.
I’m Too Fancy For Fake Leather. What Are The Benefits?
Leatherette is quite good these days, but it’s true that there’s not a lot of common ground between it and the real thing. Assuming you’re really concerned about the appearance and feel of faux leather, you can opt for the real thing, but keep in mind that some automakers exclusively use leatherette because of the costs involved in slathering a car in cowhides.
Besides the costs, you might be able to take consolation in the fact that no cows died in the making of your car, but then there are the environmental aspects to consider. Lots of plastics are made from petroleum, which requires drilling and refining fossil fuels. Leatherette might also be able to outlive traditional leathers, as the oils and other natural lubricants in the hides can dry out and lead to cracking over time.
Cleaning can be easier with leatherette as well, as there are a wider range of products that can be used on synthetic materials. They tend to be more resistant to spills and stains, and you might even be less uptight about how people behave in your car with synthetic leather.
I Still Want Real Leather. Where Can I Find It?
Again, many automakers have switched to synthetic leather to help keep the costs of their vehicles in check. Even premium brands like BMW and Mercedes-Benz install man-made materials in their entry-level vehicles. In general, you can find real leather by doing a few things:
- Buy used: If you’re willing to buy a vehicle from a few years back, especially from a luxury brand, you’ll have a better chance of finding one with real-deal leather inside.
- Buy premium: You said you were fancy, right? Put your money where your mouth is and pony up for a premium model from a premium brand.
- Read the label: Carmakers have gotten clever with marketing buzzwords for synthetic leather, using terms like “MBTex,” “StarTex,” and others. In fact, if you see any variation of “tex” on the window sticker, you’re getting synthetic leather.
The real thing to bring up here is that synthetic leather is fine. It feels decent, cleans easier, and is cheaper than the real thing. Get over yourself and try it. You might like it.
Explanation Of Terms Related To Synthetic Leathers
Scratching your head over the differences between types of upholstery? Let’s clear things up.
Leather refers to a material that is made from the skin of an animal that has been tanned or preserved in another way.
Leatherette is a blanket term that The Drive is using to describe synthetic leather. Automakers might use different terms for the synthetic leathers in their vehicles, but it’s all marketing speak for the same thing.
Upholstery refers to the material that is used to cover the seats in your car. If you’re as fancy as you say you are, your vehicle may have a mix of more than one material, but it’s all under the upholstery umbrella.
Common upholstery materials in modern vehicles include:
- Nylon – Common material used in modern vehicles. Easily cleaned and durable.
- Polyester – Not gross like your dad’s leisure suit. Can be manufactured to look and feel like suede.
- Vinyl – Not just for your local parks department’s work trucks. It’s tough, easy to clean, and cheap.
- Leatherette – You know the deal by now. Usually made from plastics or vinyls to look and feel like real leather.
- Leather – This can also include suede, which is a textured, soft type of leather.
What you use to clean your vehicle’s upholstery will depend largely on the kind of upholstery you have. Cleaners have various types of detergents and conditioners that can deep clean and protect your upholstery from age and damage.
Synthetic, in this case, refers to anything man-made. Vinyl, polyester, and leatherette are all synthetic fibers.
When we say natural here, we’re talking about fibers and materials that come from nature. Yes, cows are nature.
You’ve got questions, The Drive has answers!
Q: Why Do So Many Car Companies Use Synthetic Materials?
A: You might have noticed that there is an awfully large number of people who care about animal welfare and want to avoid using products that are derived from them. You may also have noticed that new cars are more expensive now than ever before. Both of those things are good enough reasons for automakers to move toward synthetic materials on their own.
Q: So, Automakers Use It To Make Themselves Look Friendly To Animals. What If I Don’t Feel The Same?
A: We assume you don’t feel that using leather is bad, not that you have malice toward animals. If you don’t feel the same, don’t tell us. Use your dollars and vote with your wallet. Just like brown station wagons, car companies won’t make them if you aren’t buying them. And don’t look at us, we’re still rocking the plaid seats in our ‘86 GTI.
Q: Will Synthetic Leather Hurt My Resale Value?
A: It’s unlikely, unless you’re marketing your car as having real leather. Most people, as in the vast majority of car buyers, just want a material that looks good, lasts a long time, and is easy to clean.
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