Under the hood: There's nothing like the look and feel of leather

By Phil Hanson

There's nothing like leather to give feel and look of luxury.

When pioneering motorists sat down it was usually on a leather seat - and, a century later, it's still the seating material of choice for discerning car owners.

Leather is one of motoring's more enduring - and durable - materials. Possibly because of that durability and connotations of luxury, leather survived the onslaught of vinyls, fabrics and look-alikes and remains popular not only in expensive Europeans but in relatively modest Japanese and Korean vehicles, albeit the high-spec versions.

Some auto trimmers do excellent business recovering seats in leather when the material is not available from the factory.

Should you join the leather crowd, and is the extra cost worthwhile?

While leather looks great and is easier to clean than fabric, some people complain it can feel hot and sticky in summer, chilly in winter, and doesn't provide grip the way cloth does so you may find yourself sliding about on corners.

However, grip also has a lot to do with seat design so don't just blame the leather if you feel your bum starting to slide while negotiating a tight corner.

Leather can add $2000 to $5000 to the price of a new car. Fortunately, leather-trimmed vehicles often attract a premium on the used market so the added cost may not be entirely lost.

So long as it's cared for properly, leather improves with time and use and can last for many years, the opposite of cloth seats that become worn and tatty.

Although leather was widely used until the 1960s - even Morris Minors had it - sturdy and practical vinyl largely took over, only to then give way to today's excellent fabrics. However, thanks to modern petrochemical science, vinyl has sneaked back in disguise, with softer, natural-grain textures that are almost indistinguishable from "natural" fabrics and which can closely imitate leather or suede, right down to its feel.

One such development is Alcantara, a composite suede-like material developed by a Japanese company, which then set up a joint venture with an Italian chemical firm.

Among car manufacturers using it are Aston Martin, Audi, BMW, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Land Rover, Lexus, Maserati, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and Subaru.

Some synthetics are so good at imitating leather that you have to be careful when shopping. No vehicle manufacturer sets out to be deceptive about using pretend-leather, but there may be confusion in the used market.

Some manufacturers use their "chemical leather" as a selling point, claiming consistent colour, a lack of creasing or wrinkling, ease of care and lower cost.

One of the benefits of leather, in the eyes of many, is that it's a natural material.

Like our skin, it has pores so breathes naturally and is said to be the only material that adjusts to every body temperature, although those who think leather becomes "hot and sweaty" may find this hard to accept.

Leather seats are also claimed to be particularly hygienic.

Dirt, dust and liquids will not penetrate so it may be advantageous for people with asthma or allergies.

- NZ Herald

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