Watch any car commercial and the first thing that strikes you is the prominence of bells and whistles. Whether it's park assist or rear-view cameras, 21st-century technology is firmly in the spotlight.
But look closer and you'll see something that is far from high-tech. Most high-end vehicles, and a growing number of mainstream cars, feature the same upholstery that graced the first automobiles that hit the road more than a century ago: leather.
For example, 99.2 per cent of the 10,082 Acuras and Infinitis sold in Canada last year featured leather interiors.
Technology marches on. Leather endures.
"Leather is so much more durable than other materials," Alfonso Albaisa, global executive design director for Infiniti, says. "It's the one that has lasted. The feel, the smell of quality leather cannot be duplicated.
"There's a sense that when cars are being made by robots, having that hand-crafted touch of leather gives you something special."
There's no doubt that leather is a lot more alluring than cloth or that old upholstery known as mouse fur.
The problem with leather, for those whose budgets lean more towards non-premium beer than Champagne, is that it can add thousands of dollars to the sticker price. But that hasn't stopped manufacturers – from Bentleys to Hyundais – from using more leather.
"Things you'd see in a Maserati or Bentley, those out-of-reach cars, are now migrating to premium cars," Albaisa says.
Car makers are covering instrument panels, tops of doors and previously moulded parts with leather.
"The interior is becoming more and more important, especially for a premium brand such as Mercedes-Benz," Martin Bremer, of Mercedes, says. "Quality, value appeal and choice of leather are key criteria."
But not all leathers are created equal.
It's not hard to distinguish high-quality leather from run-of-the-mill stuff. It's softer, smoother, more natural-looking – and costlier. Sorry, but you're not going to get the same quality of leather on your Ford Focus seats that you'll find in a hand-stitched Rolls-Royce interior.
Not that there's anything wrong with a Ford Focus.
The best leather is aniline, though it's too delicate for most car use. It's used more in the clothing industry and is often found adorning designer handbags. A minuscule step down are semi-aniline and nappa, which tend to come from contented cows. Honest. The best semi-anilines come from Europe, where few ranches use barbed wire that can scar the leather. On top of that bit of cattle kindness, Europeans don't brand their animals, a practice that can make huge areas on hides unusable for premium leather. Those raised in temperate climates are also favoured because there are fewer biting insects to spoil the hide's surface.
As for which country has the best leather, the favourite seems to be Germany. Mercedes, for example, prefers bulls from southern Germany – and not just because they share a Teutonic heritage. Ranching practices there tend to eliminate flaws and German bulls tend to be bigger, meaning their hides cover more territory.
Semi-aniline leathers receive minimal treatment – an organic dye with a thin protective coating to prevent sun damage and scratches – and are supple and natural-looking.
Nappa is a full-grain leather that has been treated for durability but hasn't been embossed with a different grain. Nappas retain the leather's natural look and slightly nappy feel. Bentley, for example, feature nappa on its seats, cabin trim and instrument panels.
Those willing to pay more for leather will be pleased to learn that the stuff is getting better. While leather itself is pretty much what it has been for millennia, the quality of car leather is steadily improving. "Twenty-five years ago, there were significantly lower requirements than today in terms of quality, comfort, sustainability and the number of individualization options," Bremer says.
These range from not bad to awful. Most mainstream vehicles use either corrected-grain leather or overprinted leather. Some will offer full-grain, but they are at the upper end of the price list. Corrected and overprinted leathers are basically treated to cover up flaws, such as barbed-wire marks and often buffed, which can make them less durable.
At the bottom of the ladder are split leathers, which are substantially thinner than the better hides. That's because, as the name implies, the leather has been split to make it cover more territory. That also means it likely won't last as long. The main problem with lower-end leathers is the texture, which tends to be stiff.
Fans of the late Ricardo Montalban shouldn't go looking for the "soft Corinthian leather" he cooed about on those old Chrysler Cordoba commercials. The name was strictly a marketing ploy and, no, the cows didn't come from Corinth.
Technological advances have improved the quality of artificial leather so much that many are approaching the natural product as far as softness and flexibility go. Lexus, for example, offers semi-aniline leather on many models, but has also introduced "NuLuxe" upholstery, which is synthetic leather that it says is eco-friendly. No metal waste is produced in its manufacture, the process reduces CO2 emissions by 65 per cent and, because it's lighter than leather, saves on fuel.
Even Mercedes has gone this route, offering Artico, a man-made leather, on some models.
"They're getting softer, so that initial touch feels alive," Albaisa says. "The battle there is how close you can get to the real thing."
Technology and competition will likely make for more leather options and advances, manufacturers say. "Twenty-five years ago, there were significantly lower requirements than today in terms of quality, comfort, sustainability and the number of individualization options," Bremer says.
There's likely to be more variety in colours and patterns. "The next generation of cars will go further as to how they're sewn, the patterns of quilting and layering," Albaisa says. There's also likely to be more use of recycled leathers and more emphasis on environmental sustainability.
"Customers are becoming more environmentally aware, and we have a responsibility to ensure that the tanning process and the produced leather is as environmentally friendly as possible," Bentley's Corey Proffitt says.
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