Early limousines — the kind where the chauffeur sat outside while those being chauffeured were protected by a relatively weathertight compartment — ensconced passengers in soft cloth upholstery. Back then, drivers were forced to sit on leather, chosen because it would withstand sun, rain, snow, hail and whatever else Mother Nature threw at it.
Fast forward to the early 2000s and luxury cars could still be had with cloth-upholstered seats in the U.S. Now, you won’t find a single mainstream new luxury car with cloth. Even Buick and Acura, which split the difference between mainstream Chevrolets and genuine high-end Mercedes-Benzes have largely done away with cloth upholstery. That wasn’t true as recently as the early 2000s, when many luxury-brand cars came standard with cloth.
As late as 2005, Lexus charged $2,145 for leather seats and a sunroof on its RX 330 and $1,660 for genuine hides on its GS 300. Infiniti draped its FX35 and G35 in cloth, unless buyers ponied up around $3,000 for option packages with leather trim. Japanese consumers allegedly considered cloth upholstery to be more luxurious because it makes no noise when passengers slide in and out. The megabuck Toyota Century, a largely hand-built car designed primarily for Japanese royalty, even comes standard with a wool-based cloth upholstery today.
Japanese cars carried the cloth torch longer in the U.S. than did American and German brands, but even in 2005 every version of the Audi A4 came standard with cloth (with vinyl as a no-cost option) and regal Mercedes-Benz was still fitting base C-Class sedans and M-Class SUVs with cloth.
Cloth trim is having a resurgence, at least if you listen to Jaguar and Land Rover. Cloth seats come standard on the Jaguar E-Pace, a crossover from an automaker that once prided itself on its lush Connolly leather. On the tony Land Rover Range Rover Velar, a wool-based cloth that feels positively divine costs more than the standard leather. It’s a $3,860 option that the automaker also markets as marginally more animal-friendly since, well, it’s wool.
Even high-end brands have seen the light with cloth upholstery. Porsche dabbled in houndstooth trim for its 50th Anniversary 911 in 2014 and has since made mesh-style cloth with leather seat bolsters a $3,830 option on its latest 911.
Maybe it’s time to say goodbye to leather, which really isn’t a great choice for automotive upholstery anyway. Leather feels sumptuous when new and can age well, but only if it’s well cared for with proper conditioning. Otherwise, it becomes hard, develops cracks and begins to fade. As the Lexus RX 300 above shows, cloth may very well get better with age.
Here’s to hoping, at least.
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