Faux Leather vs Real Leather Car Seats: Which are Best?


For as long as most of us can remember the most opulent and luxurious car seat material has been real leather. However, as more and more cars now offer fake or faux leather upholstery as well as genuine leather, is real leather still the best?

Fake or faux leather car seats are a better choice than real leather unless you’re only interested in a luxury car interior. While genuine leather car seats are the “real deal” and undeniably luxurious in a new car, fake leather is cheaper, easier to clean and much more hardwearing than expensive real leather.

There’s no denying that a real leather car interior looks, feels and smells fantastic when it’s new. However, the days of genuine leather upholstery being the obvious choice if you can afford it in a car are a thing of the past as new, modern fake leather or leatherette car seats are getting better and better all the time. It’s hard to argue against the sheer luxury and opulence of a real leather car interior, but in just about every other way a faux leather or leatherette upholstery is a much better and more practical choice.

What is Leatherette?

Many, many years ago, if you were talking about a cheap alternative to real leather for a car interior you’d probably be talking about vinyl. Vinyl is not what I’m going to compare to leather here, although strictly speaking, leatherette is a type of vinyl. What I’m going to put the case for is leatherette, which you will also see described as faux leather, pleather, artificial leather, synthetic leather, vegan leather, PU leather, fake leather or any number of proprietary names.

Mercedes-Benz calls its fake leather MB Tex, BMW calls its fake leather Sensatec, Lexus fake leather is Nuluxe and Volkswagen calls its fake leather V-Tex. You get the idea? I suppose if they give it a fancy brand name it sounds better than “fake leather” or “faux leather,” but that’s what it really is.

Leatherette is a man-made alternative to leather and some are designed to look more like the real thing than others. Several automakers are now starting to try and appeal to those who object to the use of real leather on ethical grounds by marketing their fake leather upholstery as being vegan.

The Tesla Model X and top-of-the-line Model S are available with a white leatherette upholstery that’s marketed as being vegan, and even Bentley is said to be considering offering a premium leatherette for vegans even though real leather is one of the main things most of us would associate with the super-luxury brand.

Fake leather or leatherette isn’t just used for car seats either. Plenty of shoes, sneakers, jackets, trousers and other items have been made from these man-made materials. And like car seats, they’re becoming harder and harder to tell from real leather all the time.

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Mercedes-Benz MB-Tex leatherette

Is Alcantara a Type of Leatherette?

You might be able to make a case for Alcantara being a type of leatherette as it is designed to be a non-animal-derived alternative to suede, but here I’m primarily concerned with materials designed to mimic leather. I have to say, however, that Alcantara is a superb material in its own right and is often used in conjuction with real leather or leatherette in sporty cars as it stops the driver or passenger from sliding around as much as those smoother surfaces. I really like Alcantara and other fake suede upholstery as it looks good, feels good, and stays that way longer than a lot of other car seat materials.

What is Real Leather?

Real leather has long been considered the most luxurious fabric that can be used for vehicle upholstery and it’s made of chemically treated animal hides, usually from cows.

All real leathers are not created equal though, and there are lots of different factors that affect the quality of leather. Things that determine the quality of leather include the type of animal and breed, the hidden layer used to underpin the leather, and the climate or the environment where the animal lived. Other things that have an effect include the skill of the workers and the way the hides have been cured or treated.

If you think leather is leather then go and have a look in a Volkswagen Golf with leather upholstery and then go sit a Bentley or an Aston Martin. And believe it or not, the quality of leather differs with color too.

I once had a customer who was a professional upholsterer and he always bought a basic Range Rover Sport with cloth seats so he could recover them himself in leather as an advert for his skills and his business. He told me that light-colored leather seats have to use a much higher quality of leather as black leather hides a multitude of imperfections that would show up easily if the leather was dyed white or cream.

When he told me that I went and compared a black leather Range Rover interior with an ivory one and I really could see and feel what he meant. It also turns out that light-colored leather car seats wear better and stay looking good for longer than black ones because a better quality of leather is used. Those light interiors don’t tend to crack and split as easily over time as black leather, so even though a light leather interior shows the dirt more and needs cleaning more often it’s probably e more practical choice in the long run.

Why Fake Leather is Better Than Real Leather

Price – It’s probably a bold statement to claim that faux leather is better than real leather but these days I really do believe that it’s true. First and foremost, leatherette is cheaper than real leather and this matters for several reasons. For a start, a new car, SUV, or truck with a faux leather interior will cost less to buy than one with real leather.

On top of that, you won’t be as worried or as precious about your car interior and how it gets used and abused if it’s fake leather because it won’t take as much to clean or cost as much to repair or replace if it gets damaged. A set of replacement seat covers in fake leather will rarely break the bank, but if you try to replace a full interior made of real leather you’d probably be better off trading the vehicle in for another instead.

Durability – I will admit that it’s hard to beat real leather car upholstery if you only keep your new vehicle for a year or two and you only do average miles. Unfortunately, the big drawback about real leather is when it gets old and has had people sitting on it for a lot of miles. Leather wears and shows its age far more than leatherette and a whole lot more than a durable cloth interior as time and miles go by.

I’ve been looking recently at buying a cheap used Mercedes-Benz SLK for a bit of fun in the summer weather. From around 2004 onwards they still look fairly modern and you can get one with less than 100k miles for not a lot of money. The problem for me is the leather seats.

While I can cope with a slightly dated dash, a lack of modern connectivity and the likes of DAB radio, I’m not happy to spend any amount of money on a car with cracked, split or torn leather seats. If the seats were made from leatherette, Alcantara or even cloth I wouldn’t hesitate, but nothing makes a car look old and tired more than badly worn leather seats.

Cars with two or more rows of leather seats are even worse because the rear seats will almost always have had less use than those in the front. While the rear leather seats often look as good as new in something like a used Saab 93 convertible that’s getting on in years, the front seats – especially the driver’s seat – will often look old, worn, tired and past their best.

For me, that kills the whole vibe. And as someone who has mostly owned and driven new cars throughout my life and career, I just can’t part with good money for something that looks and feels so old and tired as a car with worn leather seats.

Real leather as it cracks and ages

Drawbacks of Leatherette Car Seats

Now, this is where things start to get a little contentious; at least they do as far as I’m concerned. Because leather is a natural product you’ll often hear people say it “breathes” better than man-made materials and this makes it better than imitation leather when it comes to hot weather.

While I’m quite happy to admit that fake leather seats can get sticky and extremely hot in warm, sunny weather, I’m also old enough to remember plenty of people saying exactly the same about real leather upholstery before good quality leatherette became as popular as it is today.

If you want to believe that paying extra for real leather car seats will keep you dryer and fresher in the hot weather then good luck to you. They might if they’re also air-conditioned, but otherwise, I think it’s a draw between the two.

Another perceived problem with leatherette is some people are sniffy about it and just think of it as a poor relation to real leather and something you only have if you can’t afford the real thing. That may have been a fair comment 20 years ago but today’s faux leather interiors are so good it really is tough to know the difference between real and fake leather unless you are talking about the very highest quality leather interiors available.

Cleaning and Care

Unless you’re super-rich and you can change your car as often as most of us change our underwear, you’ll probably start off with a new car with a real leather interior with the very best intentions of keeping the leather cleaned, mositurized and treated to keep it looking as good as possible for as long as possible.

It’s a bit like those alloy wheels with holes in them that get covered in brake dust. We all start off cleaning them to keep them gleaming for the first week or two, but after that, the novelty wears off and we just leave them until we have to get the whole car detailed. Real leather seats are the same.

Come on; if you’ve ever had a new vehicle with real leather seats, how often have you cleaned, moisturized and nourished them after the first month or two? Go on. Admit it. Not very often if at all.

Leatherette also needs little more than a wipe with a damp cloth and it will repel moisture and spills every bit as well as any leather.

Myths About Leather vs Leatherette Car Seats

As well as using my own knowledge and experience to write articles like this I also research the top articles from other websites to make sure I’m not leaving anything out. They usually jog my memory and inspire me to mention aspects I might have overlooked otherwise, but in researching this subject I can across some stuff that really is a load of you-know-what and needs to be rebuffed.

For a start, I came across one supposedly authoritative article claiming a drawback of leather is that it’s a natural material from animals and that means it is only available in a limited number of colors such as black, brown and white. What a load of garbage.

I’ve bought and sold cars over the years with leather interiors in all manner of different colors. I particularly remember a black Range Rover Sport that looked like a good piece of used inventory from our group used car buyer until I looked inside to find the interior was a bright orange leather!

Leather hides are dyed before they are used for car seats so they can be any color the processor wants to make them. If that wasn’t the case, where on earth do they find the red cattle to make those red leather seats you see in sports cars?

“Limited” real leather colors offered in the Bentley GT

I’ve also come across claims about the sustainability of real leather compared to leatherette. And although there’s something to this that I’ll cover in a moment, one thing I read really did make me laugh. This particular article claimed “Hides used in producing leather come from cows that are sent to be used for milk. In other words, leather production does not require killing the animal first.”

There are two things wrong with that statement. The first is that regardless of what else the cows are used for, I’m pretty sure the animals have to be killed before their hides are used to produce leather. Secondly, if you think that all the finest quality leather used by Bentley, Rolls-Royce, Maybach and others comes from your average milk cow when it reaches the end of its productive life, then I’d like to offer you an exclusive chance to buy your own section of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Just as you don’t get Wagyu beef from any old cattle, the finest quality leather hides don’t come from ordinary milking stock. The finest hides often come from cattle primarily bred for those hides, and any other part of the animal that gets used is a bonus.

Sustainability

There is a case to be made for real leather being a more environmentally friendly material than fake leather or leatherettes, but it’s not an entirely cut-and-dried argument at all. Leatherette includes plastic in its production and that means oils and chemicals, which is bad, but take a while to check out some of the chemicals used in curing leather hides and try selling that as environmentally friendly to Greenpeace or Leonardo DiCaprio.

More energy is probably used in producing leatherette materials than real leather, but that doesn’t take into account the carbon footprint associated with rearing cattle we hear so much about these days from vegetarians, vegans and others.

What happens when the car or interior is scrapped does lead to leather being the more environmentally friendly option as leatherette will not biodegrade in the same way leather does. On the other hand, what about some of the backing materials used to bolster cheaper leather sometimes?

Resale Values

You’ll definitely see leather used as a standout feature in advertisements for used cars, and even the renowned Kelley Blue Book states that the same vehicle with genuine leather seats commands around $370 more when compared to vehicles with fake leather. You could be asked to pay as much as $500 more for a used model with real leather seats, compared to an identical model with cloth or leatherette seats. However, I see this as a reason to look for fake leather upholstery for the reasons I’ve already mentioned above.

I’m not sure this obsession with real leather will continue in the future when today’s models with really standout leatherette materials become more prevalent in the used market, but I could be wrong.

In fact, today’s fake leather is so good it’s claimed that as many car owners think they have real leather seats when they’re actually faux-leather.

Brent Gruber, J.D. Power’s director of the global automotive division at J.D. Power believes it’s a good thing that buyers now struggle to tell the difference.

He said: “It’s a compliment to the suppliers that they can produce a synthetic material that customers indicate looks and feels so much like leather that they frequently cannot tell the difference, despite automakers marketing the leatherette has a synthetic leather-like material.”

Mercedes C Class Cabriolet upholstery options

My Thoughts

I used to love nothing better than a real leather interior in a car, truck or SUV. Then again, I used to only ever want to drive manual transmissions and wouldn’t consider the idea of owning an automatic until I finally had to drive one for a sustained period.

If I was buying a brand new car today I wouldn’t care whether the interior was genuine leather or leatherette, but if I was going to keep it for more than a couple of years I’d definitely lean towards the man-made material. And as I mentioned earlier, I really do have a thing against used cars with tired, worn real leather upholstery.

The last brand new car I bought was a 2018 Mercedes-Benz C-Class AMG-Line Cabriolet with black leather upholstery. After I’d had it for about six months I found out when compiling a review using the brochure checking the specification that the steering wheel and shifter knob were real leather, but the seats were as fake as Hollywood.

Unless your number one priority is the ultimate luxury look and feel and how the seats wear is of no concern to you, then I’d say get a car with a leatherette interior instead. If it’s a good quality faux leather you probably won’t even be able to tell that it’s not real leather.  

Sean Cooper

Former retail auto industry professional for almost a decade and an automotive writer and journalist for the last 8 years

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