Car seat materials

What is alcantara? And everything else you need to know about seat materials

Gavin Conway
Jul 25, 2017

Once you've agonised over the colour and settled on the size of alloy wheels, it's worth giving some thought to an area where you'll really feel the benefit: your car's seats.

There are options to heat, cool and massage your posterior but also an increasing choice of fabrics with which to upholster your seats. These include various leather grades; artificial materials, including vinyl that's making a revival; cloth in a variety of patterns; and some alternative fabrics designed specifically for cars.

To help make up your mind read on for our guide to the seat materials on offer and why they might - or might not - be right for you. If you know what you're looking for, then use the links below to jump to the right section.

Leather seats
Artificial leather seats
Alcantara / suedecloth seats
Alternative fabric seats
Cloth seats

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Leather seats

Leather means luxury in the car world, even if it's now offered on some Ford Fiestas. As well as upholstering seats in cow hide, many higher-end cars slather leather across the dashboard and doors for a softer and more opulent finish than plastic.

But all leather is not equal. Standard leather, which may be known as grained leather, may have been buffed and stamped to improve their appearance and feel. In addition, some parts of leather seats may be made up of artificial - or faux - leather. The material is normally hard-wearing, but doesn't have the same luxury feel of higher-grades - such as Nappa leather.

What is Nappa leather?

Nappa, king of leathers

Nappa leather is a very high quality upholstery. It’s often referred to as a full grain leather, which means it hasn’t been buffed or otherwise altered and treated to remove defects and faults with the leather. It's soft but durable, and has an expensive feel.

These lesser grades are called corrected grain. They don’t look or feel as good as full grain and are not likely to be as durable. Often, herds of cows used for Nappa leather will be raised in areas without barbed wire to protect against scarring. It’s inherently a tough leather that ages well, without looking shabby. It's known as Windsor Leather in Jaguar and Land Rover models.

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Leather seats - the good

✔ Durable
✔ Soft, luxurious feel
✔ Wipe-clean

Leather seats - the not-so-good

✘ Expensive
✘ Hot in summer and cold in winter
✘ Require occasional treatment 



Artificial leather seats

It may look like a decent imitation of leather, but artificial or faux-leather seats are made from vinyl. Modern processes (and in-car air conditioning) means that the seats don't stick to the back of your legs, as they did in the past, but there is a slight plasticky feel that's obvious when you compare them diectly with genuine leather.

Luxury car makers say that an increasing number of customers are specifying fake leather because they are vegan, or have concerns about cruelty to animals. It's offered under various names:  BMW's fake leather is called SensaTec, Lexus has NuLuxe and Land Rover uses Luxtec. The best-known brand is Artico, which is used with enthusiasm by Mercedes across much of its range. 

What is Artico?

Mercedes and its artificial cow 

Mercedes might describe the material as "Artico leather" but the closest it gets to a cow is when you load a bottle of milk into the boot after a supermarket shop. As well as being more acceptable to vegans, it also appeals because of its price. If you order real leather for your new Mercedes C-Class, for example, Mercedes will charge £795. Artico is a no-cost option.

As with other man-made leather materials, it's made to look and feel as much like the real thing as possible. Mercedes is successful: the days of horrible, shiny, hard vinyls are long gone for most mainstream car makers. But while these materials look convincing and cost much less than the genuine article, they don’t quite deliver the tactile of real, high-quality leather. Or smell as nice, either.

Artificial leather seats - the good

✔ Cheaper than genuine leather
✔ Hard to tell the difference unless you're looking carefully
✔ No animals harmed in its production

Artificial leather seats - the not-so-good

✘ Slightly plasticky feel
✘ Stickier than cloth or leather when hot
✘ No leather smell  



Alcantara and Suedecloth seats

These materials have the luxury feel of suede but without that material's tendency to wear down quickly and pick up stains from spillages. The plush look and soft finish of alcantara and suedecloth can be found in expensive vehicles - even the cockpit of some Formula One cars. Which is why car manufacturers generally kep quiet about what the material is made of: plastic.

It's sometimes combined with other materials to produce alternative fabrics; you can order a wool / suedecloth blend in the Range Rover Velar

What is Alcantara and suedecloth?

Alcantara is not quite what it seems

The first thing to know about Alcantara is that no cows were harmed during its manufacture, even though it has a very similar feel and look to suede, which is a leather product. Alcantara is a microfibre material made of polyester and polyurethane, which is claimed to give it the sort of durability and stain resistance that real suede could never hope to match. It's often combined with leather trim, as in the image above.

Suedecloth is the name used for the material by Land Rover. The company says that it's made from recycled plastic bottles, making it greener than other fabrics

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Alcantara seats - the good

✔ Expensive and luxurious appearance
✔ Comfortable and soft
✔ Stain- and wear-resistant

Alcantara seats - the not-so-good

✘ Short fibres trap threads, so it can be an effort to keep clean
✘ Not a natural product
✘ More expensive than cloth



Alternative fabric seats

Green, vegan and plush

Alternative fabrics are meant to be an alternative to leather, with a luxurious finish that doesn't involve animal hides. Land Rover has begun offering what it calls Premium textile, which is a blend of wool and polyester. It feels soft and plush, and it said to be stain-resistant and hard-wearing.

The material is used along with panels of suedecloth but isn't a budget option, costing more than even the premium Windsor leather seats in the Range Rover Velar.

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Alternative fabrics - the good

✔  Does not use animal hides
✔  Does not heat up and cool down like leather
✔  Greater variety of patterns are possible

Alternative fabrics - the not-so-good

✘ Expensive option
✘ Untested durability claims
✘ Price may not be reflected in used car values



Cloth seats 

Cloth isn’t a washout

Cloth interiors have long been the poor cousins to leather, or even fake leather. That’s a little unfair as modern seat fabrics have been engineered for durability, improved stain resistance and prevention of stretching over the years. They also won't burn your legs on a hot day, or make it feel like you're sitting on a block of ice in winter, as leather can.

You still see large numbers of older Mercedes E-Class cars, for example, with cloth interiors that still look fresh. Cloth interiors also give more scope for interesting styling touches – in recent years Volkswagen revived its plaid interior for its Golf GTI (above), which for many is much more appealing than plain old cream or black leather. The other big advantage is price: cloth is generally the cheapest seat fabric option.

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Cloth seats - the good

✔ Usually the cheapest seat fabric
✔ Versatility makes it easy to introduce new patterns
✔ Some cloth coverings are washable

Cloth seats - the not-so-good

✘ Picks up stains and odours
✘ Budget feel
✘ More likely to generate static


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