For anyone old enough to remember the days of vinyl seats-icy in the winter, sweaty in the summer-the emergence of high-quality cloth seats was a true luxury.
Up until the later 1970s, cloth upholstery was rarely seen, and with good reason. Most of it was hideous brocade pattern stuff (as in some luxury cars and AMC products) and it seemed to have a life span measured in months, not years. Thus the popularity of clear vinyl seat covers.
Soft, sturdy corduroy (often in European marques like VW and Audi) and, yes, even velour (the last word in luxury, at least for a while) was embraced. But the democratization of leather at the dawn of the '90s soon had automakers cheapening their cloth upholstery. It's gotten to the point where most cloth seats are so nasty you're practically forced to spend an extra $1000 or more for leather. And in most cars, the leather is so heavily processed that you can barely tell it from vinyl. The circle is complete.
Except that, recently, I've driven three different cars that provide hope for car buyers looking to escape the leather bind.
The Nissan Versa could hardly be cheaper (its starts at $13,255), but it has the interior of a much more expensive car. Space is generous and surfaces nicely padded, but a big part of luxury impression is the cloth upholstery, which Nissan describes as "suede/tricot" and which is, in fact, convincingly suede-like. Nice.
Shortly after the Versa, I spent some time in a Mazda6 Sport Wagon. This was the base model, the Special Value Edition ($24,784 before options). The overall interior is a bit bland, particularly our dunked-in-gray example; black and beige interiors also are available. Again, however, I was impressed with the upholstery, a plush, nice-feeling cloth. Unfortunately, Mazda is dropping this sporty-driving wagon for 2008, so rush out and get yours now.
The very next week, it was the Mitsubishi Outlander's turn to surprise. We had a mid-level LS model ($24,420, with 4WD) in the office. Although the cabin has its fair share of hard plastic, it also wears some handsome cloth upholstery, "Sport cloth," in Mitsubishi-speak. Standard on all trim levels, it's available in black or beige. The Outlander also gets a thumbs-up for its back seat, which is set well higher than the fronts, slides forward and back, and also reclines. Our example also boasted a DVD player, a $1150 option, but was missing the available third-row seat.
It's probably too soon to conclude that high-quality cloth is making a comeback. But the cars above at least raise one's hopes that the tyranny of overpriced, over-processed leather could soon end, and cow-skin seats may once again become an option, rather than a virtual necessity.