Even with such memorable roles as Mr. Roarke of TV’s “Fantasy Island” and as the vengeful Khan of “Star Trek,” Ricardo Montalban is largely remembered as the pitchman who extolled the comfort of “soft Corinthian leather” in the 1970s Chrysler Cordoba.
Corinthian leather, it turned out, came not from a region of Greece but, it was widely reported, from a supplier in New Jersey. The TV ads became fodder for comedians, and were perhaps the inspiration for a marketing trend: renaming a commodity material to bolster a luxury image. Today, BMW offers “Dakota” leather on its 3 Series cars and “Merino” leather on higher-end models.
While those names may be no more meaningful than the Corinthian label, hides definitely vary by grade and quality. As vice president for trim engineering at Lear Corp., a leading automotive seating supplier, Mandy Rice is well qualified to decipher some of the types of leather used in cars. Here’s how she described the levels:
Aniline: The softest, most luxurious grade starts with the highest quality “crust,” showing the fewest visible defects. The dye process and minimal finishing ensure softness, but also provide the least protection against staining and scuffing. You’ll generally find it in higher-end luxury vehicles.
Semi-aniline: One notch down, this grade still offers a luxurious feel but provides a more protective finish. “In cars, the biggest things we’re concerned about are UV protection against color fading and also wear and abrasion,” Rice said.
Full grain: Used in mainstream and lower-priced models, this grade starts with a crust that might show blemishes. The finishing process uses chemical fillers and pigments to hide flaws, and then a light grain pattern is applied.
In addition to the grades of leather are finish treatments, including perforated. It’s an embellishment for ventilation and style; the holes arranged in a simple pattern or more sophisticated gradient and asymmetric patterns. Then there are the concoctions born in the laboratory, not the pasture – some very convincing and quite long-lasting.
Lear does not make imitation leather, which is basically vinyl, but Rice acknowledges its growing use in luxury vehicles. It’s a good choice for those who shun animal products or who need maximum durability. Taking a cue from Chrysler’s past, carmakers have branded their faux leather, including BMW SensaTec, Lexus NuLuxe and Mercedes-Benz MB-Tex. Alcantara is a soft suedelike microfiber, developed by Toray Industries of Japan and produced in Italy by a joint venture, Alcantara SpA.
To meet demand for “genuine leather” at a lower price, Rice says, Lear is developing a material that uses 60 percent recycled leather fiber that has been ground up and applied to a fabric backing. She also explains that new processes such as embossing, printing, embroidering and even laser etching can add appealing accents to leathers and fabrics even in low-priced cars. For example, a cloud print and embroidery add a designer touch to the seats, as can be seen in the Fiat 500’s 1957 Edition. Because such techniques do not affect the seats’ safety validation, they can be used to create special editions or with distinctive interior appointments.