Not many years ago, one differentiating factor between a car driven by the average person and a luxury automobile was whether the upholstery was made of practical cloth, cheap vinyl or elegant leather. Carmakers rarely use vinyl anymore, but there’s a new arrival in automobile upholstery: leatherette.
When you compare leatherette vs leather, what’s the difference? Is one better than the other? What are the trade-offs? Here’s what you should know.
What is leather?
Genuine leather is still one of the most sought-after looks and smells when buying a car. Almost always made from cowhide, the leather used in car upholstery is different from baseball gloves or jackets.
Carmakers typically select leather from northern countries because their hides are thicker and less scarred from biting insects. Full-thickness northern hides are also more durable, but less expensive cars typically use hides split in half to make the material go further.
Most hides go through a lengthy process to become leather.
- The pre-tanning stage involves soaking, fleshing, removing hair and pickling.
- With tanning, chemicals treat the hide to change the protein structure to prevent rotting. Most automotive leathers use aldehyde and oil tannages for soft, durable finishes.
- Lastly, the crusting process thins, dyes and lubricates the leather, tanning it again.
In the end, leather for automotive applications has a granular appearance with a low-gloss finish that holds its color and resists wear.
What is leatherette?
In stark contrast to leather, leatherette is created in a very different way. Instead of using animal parts, leatherette is manufactured from petroleum products layered with a fibrous substrate.
Early examples can be found as far back as the beginning of the 20th century, with a German artificial leather called Presstoff. It was used as a stand-in for leather because Germany rationed the premium material in wartime. Presstoff was used for binocular straps, belts and more.
Leatherette significantly improved when DuPont began manufacturing what it called Fabrikoid for General Motors. This material was used on roofs, upholstery and other spots.
More recently, faux leather products are made by bonding a polyvinyl chloride (PVC) layer to an underside fabric. Base materials include polyester, cotton, rayon and nylon, with a durable layer of PVC on top. The product is then finished with a rolled-on pattern to mimic genuine leather.
Even a decade ago, leatherette seats didn’t last nearly as long as leather. Advances in manufacturing have made leatherette increasingly durable and realistic-looking—so much so you might have trouble noticing the difference.
Leatherette vs. leather: Understanding the differences
Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t immediately spot the difference between leatherette vs. leather seats. Leatherette is masquerading as the real thing, with a look and feel similar to the original. Both materials are more upscale than cloth or vinyl. For many car shoppers, that’s all that matters. There are, nevertheless, differences to be explored between them.
Leatherette vs leather: comfort
Imagine climbing into the driver’s seat of a hot car on a sweltering summer day. Sweat seeps through your clothes while heat radiates between your body and the seat. Both leather and leatherette cause a similar reaction, but one more so than the other.
Leather breathes better than leatherette because leather has natural pores in its skin. In either case, perforated and/or ventilated seats can lessen the effect, helping moisture escape.
Leather has an advantage in other areas, too. It’s more pliable than leatherette, making it more supportive as it molds to your body’s contours.
Leatherette vs leather: maintenance
When you look at leather seats from model year 2005 and earlier, they show their age. Cracks look like skin stretch marks on the surface, often showing tufts of yellowing foam underneath. That’s primarily from lack of maintenance. Properly caring for leather requires cleaner and conditioner that restores moisture and oil in the material and keeps the leather supple. Soap and water will dry it out.
On the other side of the equation, leatherette care is easy. Because it’s a synthetic material, you can use a wet cloth, mild dish detergent or even multipurpose cleaner for any messes. Being low maintenance is clearly an advantage for leatherette.
Leatherette vs. leather: cost
Although it’s a renewable resource, there’s a limit to the supply of automotive leather. The auto industry only uses certain hides, and only so many cows are available at a given time. As a limited product increasing in demand, leather upholstery’s costs likely won’t come down anytime soon.
The price of leatherette, however, is coming down as it increases in popularity. The material is easy to manufacture, and the source materials are inexpensive. Choosing leatherette can keep costs down.
Here are a few examples:
- The 2021 Mercedes-Benz GLA 250 has leatherette as standard equipment. You’ll have to pay an additional $1,450 for one of the four choices of real leather.
- The 2021 Lexus NX 300 comes standard with NuLuxe leatherette, but to upgrade to leather, you’ll have to spend an additional $4,000 for the Luxury package.
- In the 2021 BMW 3 Series sedan, Sensatec upholstery is included as standard equipment. Upgrading to leather adds $1,450 to the price.
Leatherette vs leather: durability
There doesn’t seem to be a clear winner for durability—both leather and leatherette have advantages and disadvantages.
Leather tends to be more resistant to punctures and cuts, but it can take on odors and colors from contact. For example, a new pair of denim jeans could transfer indigo dye to the leather, a stain that may never come out.
With leatherette, the toughness doesn’t stack up to the real thing. Forgetting a screwdriver or keys in your pocket could produce a nasty slash, gouge or puncture, an incident much likelier than with leather. Leatherette won’t pick up scents or stains, but it’s less resistant to scratches and cracking. That said, the lower cost makes leatherette more affordable to repair should you need to replace a panel at some point.
Leatherette vs leather: image
Only one type of upholstery has the claim to status and wealth: genuine leather. If you want to make an impression on anyone who might see the inside of your car—clients, family members, friends, colleagues or even an Uber passenger—leather is a must-have.
But if you want an air of elegance while saving money, leatherette offers an excellent alternative. For those sensitive to the plight of our bovine friends, knowing it’s a vegan material is an advantage over genuine leather.
If a budget-conscious upscale look is what you want, a few options with leatherette include:
- The 2021 Hyundai Sonata SEL with Dynamica leatherette upholstery
- The 2021 Volkswagen Jetta R-Line with V-Tex leatherette seating surfaces
- The 2021 Kia Soul EX+ with artificial leather seats
Leather vs. leatherette: Which one is right for me?
Whether you settle on leather or leatherette, you’ll have a classy look that’s more durable than cloth and easier to keep clean. What it comes down to are some of the finer details and how you’ll use the vehicle.
Leatherette will probably work for you if …
- You’re budget-conscious.
- You disapprove of animal parts covering your seats.
- You have frequent passengers.
- You’re in a cooler climate.
It might be worth springing for leather if …
- You don’t mind spending a little extra for premium materials.
- You’re in your car a lot and want a bit of breathability.
- You aren’t concerned about damage from pets, kids or passengers.
- You want to convey a certain air of luxury.
- You’re diligent with vehicle maintenance and detailing.