Hey, everyone! Remember when we all agreed that the best material for car interior would be insanely expensive, impossible to clean, look like a dirty sandbox on its best day with the texture of pubic hair stubble? Neither do I.
It comes as a surprise to me that as I get older, I like the music played on the radio exponentially less than I did when I had a hairline that didn’t require the daily use of medical science. I’ve become tired of Hollywood sequels, prequels, and re-quels of movies that weren’t that good to begin with. I also think the IKEA fall catalog is minimalist nonsense and I don’t get it at all.
But cars are different.
Car styling and performance is something that I enjoy to such a degree that almost anything introduced would be welcomed with open arms, if not given countless second chances to grow on me, except for one niggling fad that just won’t go away: the use of suede in car interiors as a premium option.
I’ve had cars with leather interiors for as long as I’ve been able to drive, and while that may have made me akin to the Rockefellers decades ago, the fact remains that leather just isn’t as plush of an option as it was when your morning commute included a quick stop on the side of the road to check that your carburetor wasn’t on fire.
My very first car with a leather anything was a 1998 Nissan Maxima GLE. The leather was harder than a test you didn’t study for and it was the color of an under-cooked Kardashian, but it counted as a premium option, which points out the issue in a nutshell - when any regular car for plebes can have a premium leather interior, no one finds it novel or fancy anymore. This was, and still is, a huge problem for car manufacturers, and here’s how I think they came up with a solution.
As automotive executives in the late 90s scrambled to see what exotic materials they could pack into their flagships, one of the intrepid higher-ups, known as patient zero, frantically looked inside his wife’s matted and stained designer handbag for any reason to divorce, but instead found the material that would be introduced as the next big thing in car interior design. “We’ll make millions!” he said, after confessing his love to the pool boy.
And so began the era of suede.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the material, suede is what happens when the “use every part of the Buffalo” mentality is mixed with the startling narcissism and neglect of the Victorian era. It was originally made as softer material for women’s gloves, consisting of the underside of a traditional leather hide. Instead of being smooth like leather, it had a short, coarse grain that resembled thick peach fuzz. Over time, synthetic materials had emerged, known as ultrasuede, microsuede and Alcantara that were cheaper to make and better suited to things like lining the toilet bowls of the yachts of Russian oil barons.
For the past decade, companies that manufactured luxury and sports cars had billed suede and its synthetic doppelgängers as the go-to materials for those that wanted the finer things in life, but the reality was that it made your car that much harder to drive. Porsche’s big on this crap. So is GM.
At first, Alcantara headliners were offered as an option in higher-end models as the material wouldn’t work well in an application like a seat or armrest because of the constant crushing and scuffing, but in a unanimous move, designers said “Fuck it!” and just made entire interiors out of the stuff, and it goes down as one of the dumbest ideas in automotive history.
If you’ve ever driven a car with a suede steering wheel under any sort of pressure to perform, the oils in your hands are immediately soaked into the fibers of the steering wheel, staining them and making it a grotty mess over a surprisingly short amount of time. It’s the material for the person that sees a dirty suede boot and says “I’m willing to pay extra to sit in that.”
Ah! But I’ll just use gloves when I drive! That’ll keep the steering wheel clean! you say to yourself before diving straight into the comments to say Jalopnik was so much better “before Gawker took over.” Settle down, jabroni - you’re still wrong on all accounts. Leather driving gloves - real leather gloves - are made of skin that is porous and absorbs moisture, oils and dirt - the same ones that you’re transferring to your gloves via your now-profusely-sweaty hands because there’s no place for your white-knuckle heat to go.
Even if you wore latex gloves to drive, you’d still have the crushing pressure of your hands to worry about, matting the surface beyond repair in short order.
This goes double for anything that you touch. Armrests, door panels, seat bolsters all get saturated quite quickly and look horrible if not treated with a light touch and cleaned constantly. Imagine that - the most expensive option on an interior includes something that will absorb and display your tragic case of swamp ass on the day your air conditioning stopped working. What a treat.
“But I’ve seen the new Rolls Royce/Bentley/Accord EX and its suede headliner looks amazing!”
Let me make this clear - there are opinions that you reach on your own, and others that are made as a result of clever marketing. Alcantara, the suede flavor du jour, was designed for you to think it’s upscale. It’s the lobster of interior materials. It was made in the ‘70s out of polyester and polyurethane and it can be made to look good when it’s brand new and untouched, especially in brand new cars, even though luxury manufacturers nowadays try to minimize its presence in their press photos.
However, the second you have to live with it, it becomes a brutish magnet for dirt, discoloration, and fingerprints that are impossible to take out. If you’re a stickler for the finer details, this will drive you goddamn bananas.
Here’s a picture of my daily-driven S-Class with an Alcantara headliner. This is what clean looks like:
Cleaning this impractical material also doesn’t mean wiping it down with some conditioner or upholstery cleaner and towel - it means you’d have to approach it with the same delicate care as a medium-sized highway chemical spill.
Tesla Motors Club released a tutorial on what to do if and when you get your delicate Alcantara interior dirty, and it’s telling as to how fickle and fragile the material really is. Here’s an excerpt:
In the case of localised stains and when your specific cleaning product is not available you can clean the material as follows:
- ACT FAST (preferably within 30 mnts)
- DO NOT pour any cleaning product directly onto the alcantara or suede.
- Remove as much of the spilled substance before you try to remove the stain.
- AVOID rubbing the affected area to prevent the stain from going deeper into the material.
- Use a well wrung white cloth or sponge to remove the stain (if a sponge is being used, rinse it in clean water and wring it very well between wipes).
- Begin treating the stain from the outside edge into the center to avoid spreading the stain.
They also forgot two warnings: It can smell fear and its vision is based on movement.
In addition, the recommended cleaner for the cheap-to-produce-but-expensive-to-buy Alcantara costs $165 per liter. That’s right, the second you even think about bringing a chicken nugget into your car, expect a three digit bill if a honey-mustard-soaked morsel falls onto your armrest.
If it’s such a crappy material, why are car manufacturers using it in such spectacular numbers? The answer is simple - because the masses have been told that this is expensive and therefore the thing to get. Much like new iPhones that introduce people to problems that were long since eradicated while charging twice as much for the privilege, suede and its various iterations is just as easy to stain and pedestrian-looking as a traditional cloth interior, except it’s infinitely harder to clean and never looks quite right. It has a dramatically short shelf life and can’t stand any sort of prolonged use.
As a society, we’re smart enough to figure out when we’re being had, and we’re certainly smart enough to figure out what materials we want to plop our butts in, if only to feel good about spending the kid’s college fund on something that loses a quarter of its value the second it’s purchased.
I urge you, as car enthusiasts and as lovers of generally nice things - just say no to suede. Suede may have been good enough for Elvis, but he also shot at TVs and died on the toilet. You can do better.
Tavarish is the founder of APiDA Online and writes and makes videos about buying and selling cool cars on the internet. He owns the world’s cheapest Mercedes S-Class, a graffiti-bombed Lexus, and he’s the only Jalopnik author that has never driven a Miata. He also has a real name that he didn’t feel was journalist-y enough so he used a pen name and this was the best he could do.