What will vanish first: Leather interiors or combustion engines?
Mini, Toyota, Jaguar and Tesla move car upholstery into the future.
Brian CooleyEditor at Large
Brian Cooley is CNET's Editor at large and has been with the brand since 1995. He currently focuses on electrification of vehicles but also follows the big trends in smart home, digital healthcare, 5G, the future of food, and augmented & virtual realities. Cooley is a sought after presenter by brands and their agencies when they want to understand how consumers react to new technologies. He has been a regular featured speaker at CES, Cannes Lions, Advertising Week and the Publicis HealthFront. He was born and raised in Silicon Valley when Apple's campus was mostly apricots.
ExpertiseAutomotive technology, smart home, digital health.Credentials
Unless you're seeking the smell of leather (which, like "new car smell," is just a bunch of off-gassing manufacturing chemicals), MB-Tex will probably meet or exceed your expectations for a "leather" interior. It's been one of my favorite auto upholsteries for years, and suffers less from the scalding in the summer/freezing in the winter experience you can get with animal leather.
Lexus probed the vegan trend early, making a few bespoke vegan Lexus models in 2006 at the request of Paul McCartney, whose tour it was sponsoring. But it would be over a decade later before the industry found interest among a wider base of car buyers, particularly affluent ones.
The Porsche Taycan offers a microfiber vegan upholstery called "Race-Tex" that presents as leather but which uses recycled polyester and generates 80% less CO2 in its production. And that's where we find the first key to why some carmakers are going vegan: They're under huge pressure, especially in the EU, to lower the carbon footprint of their products and it doesn't all come from tailpipes.
Global animal agriculture, including leather production, creates more CO2 than cars (though that's the reverse in the US because we have some many cars per capita).
Leather creates a long and nasty chain of CO2 emissions and chemical waste. Averting that with a cleaner material would merely be altruistic on the part of carmakers but for an interesting provision in the EU's transport regulations that gives them credit for reducing CO2 emissions through so-called "eco-innovations" that can't be measured as part of road tests.
Add to that three more benefits of non-leather "leather" upholstery that automakers frequently cite:
It's lighter in weight, which is a huge factor in all aspects of auto design.
There's a lower cost of production, as many of these materials are made from low-cost or recycled fibers.
The better use and reuse cycle allows them to hit product-dismantling goals.
I know many of you will push back at the idea, thinking it springs from a bunch of sanctimonious change agents who want to take away your leather, manual transmission and combustion engine. But all three of those are going away because they aren't the best way to engineer a car anymore. When you get a chance to try out a vegan leather car interior, sit without prejudice and see what you think.