Why Do People Prefer Leather in Cars?

Published by Nadeem Muaddi on July 18th, 2013

Auto Upholstery - The Hog Ring - Ferrari FF Leather Interior

Captain’s chairs that detect looming heart attacks, active perfuming systems, even transparent backseats – you name, cars have it. So why is it that with all this technology, drivers still ask us to trim their cabins in old-fashioned leather hides?

BusinessWeek thinks it has the answer. Tell us if you agree.

Reporter James Tarmy writes:

Turns out, the problem isn’t with car companies. It’s with consumer demand. There are some extremely sophisticated synthetic alternatives out there that customers just don’t want. “There are a lot of tech materials being developed for the automotive industry,” says Sandy McGill, a BMW Design Works lead designer based in Los Angeles. “You can get different functionality from the textiles, with ceramic impregnated in them with cooling and warming benefits.”

There’s material technology, in other words, that’s outpaced leather by a mile, but it’s hard to shake the perception of natural hides being synonymous with luxury. “There is this traditional mentality,” says McGill. “People want leather in their cars.”

Why have people been so quick to adopt new technology (touchscreen navigation controls, for example), but so hesitant to try alternative fabrics? McGill sites the breakneck speed of development as precisely the reason that people still gravitate to leather. “We’re living in the world of digital media,” she says. “Leather is associated with sensuality and nature. That’s why it will still be desirable in the future.” […]

McGill thinks the catalyst for change will come from the top of the luxury market and work its way down. “Alcantara is a synthetic suede from Italy. It’s very fine, it’s very consistent in its texture, and we originally thought it would be used in seats for race cars, because it grips you and holds you in your seat,” she says. “I see Alcantara as breaking into the leather barrier,” she continues. “Once something aside from leather is acceptable on the seat, then other things will be too.” [more]

While there’s merit to what Tarmy writes, I can’t say that I entirely agree. Having grown up in the auto upholstery industry, I’m aware of the drawbacks to leather, as well as all the benefits to using other, more technologically advanced materials. Still, I prefer a supple hide over anything else.

For me, nothing quite matches the look, feel and smell of real leather. Sure, today’s imitations are convincing, but they’re missing that certain unexplainable essence of the genuine article. Those beautiful imperfections, the care it requires to stay in fine shape, the way it sets and wears depending on the hell you put it through, and – of course – that feeling of quality craftsmanship.

To me, it’s not about luxury at all. It’s about authenticity. What do you think?

12 Responses

  1. Geoff Geoff says:

    I think you hit it – scent. The sense of smell bypasses all of the usual processing filters in the brain, and delivers uncensored and uninterpreted messages straight into our heads. This is/was a survival skill, so that we could instantly detect something being off about food.

    But scent also triggers memories. The smell of your parent’s house, or a significant other. The scent of a favorite food, or a book. All of these trigger memories faster than just a visual will. So when we smell leather, for most of us, it is a positive and inviting thing, triggering good feelings and associations. Until vinyl can pull that off, I think leather will remain the go-to material for luxury vehicles. It may shift to only the highest-end Bentley and Rolls Royce crowd, but will still be the luxury standard.

    • I agree Geoff, scent is a major factor. But with the amount of R&D companies are putting into faux fabrics, it’s only a matter of time before they develop one that smells like the genuine article (if they haven’t already): http://bit.ly/121prp5

      Stores already sell a “leather smell” air freshner….

    • scotman scotman says:

      I have experienced the Alcantara materials. They have a luxury feel and look. But yeah, the smell is missing. I also think that the general public is largley unaware of just how much leather they are actually getting. Many have no idea that their “leather seats” are really only leather facings or trim and that their back seat may, in fact, be ALL fake leather!

  2. Clayton says:

    Honestly, with the amount of leathers on the market its hard to not find one that you will love but when it comes to the better majority of our customers it comes down to price. We have had customers with over $50,000 worth of work done and when I show them all of the leather options available and some really cool vinyls and the price break down, the majority of my customers go with vinyl. There is just a lot more available in the customization and feel and longevity of the upgraded vinyls. There is no replacing the feel and smell of leather but when it comes to the look and price, that’s the difference we see and we show. Not a leather hater just an option maker! Check us out @ http://www.JacobsUpholstery.com

  3. Gtrimming Gjudd says:

    I’ve been trimming for nearly 15 years now, of the top of my head I can only think of maybe 10 vinyl retrims I’ve done if that! The only other time I trim in vinyl is if the car is to factory spec.

    Vinyl in my eyes is just that, yeah it’s moved on and it get better and better BUT it’s vinyl!

    Leather just has that thing? The feel, look, not so much the smell as in certain country’s the odour is taken out.

  4. Cesar Cesar says:

    IMHO I think that leather is a kind of tradition from ancient times since human beings were in touch with animal pelts…It seems that this material with its pliability,feel,odour,and softness is engraved in the brain of human beings, because it’s been used through the times to become in a unique and uncomparable material. If comparing is the matter… the same we could say of a diamond, a unique precius stone that never could be compared with the best zirconium.

    • This article raises a lot of good points. When you think about it, leather really is an outdated material. There are much more practical, cost effective, green, and technologically advanced materials that far surpass leather. But like the others have said,

      I like the way Cesar put it…

      “the same we could say of a diamond, a unique precius stone that never could be compared with the best zirconium.”

      Very good point Cesar.

  5. You raise a very good point Tina. I have also started to refer to vinyl as leather simulation. The word vinyl has a negative stigma to it

  6. David says:

    Having leather on car seats has become a status symbol amongst the rich & those that want to appear rich. Those that prefer comfort choose a different material. Check out what the Queen of England & many of the Middle Eastern Sheiks now put their butts on. It isn’t leather. I have two cars.one with leather (BMW) & the other without (Mitsubishi) & in the long hot summers I certainly choose the Mitsy for comfort.

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