Back in late April of this year, Automotive News Europe‘s blog featured an entry by Nick Gibbs titled Lightweighting push puts pressure on leather . Its “teaser” introduction, citing the lighter weight of “an upmarket leather alternative” led me to expect a discussion on the use by luxury car brands of
vinyl synthetic leather in their entry-level models under such fanciful names as MB-Tex (Mercedes-Benz), SensaTec (BMW), Leatherette (Cadillac and Grace Jones), and NuLuxe (Lexus). The latter, at least, is 50% lighter than genuine leather. The subject at hand, however, is not faux leather, but Alcantara, a synthetic suede.
Ranked right up there with leather, aluminum and carbon fiber in the pantheon of de rigueur upscale sporting car interior materials, alcantara is certainly a useful tool in the quest to make cars lighter. As Gibbs notes in his article:
…synthetic suede is about half the weight of leather. That means using a 5-meter covering made from the leather alternative would save about 2 kg (4.4 lbs) per car compared with the real thing.
…demand to lighten cars is on the rise because all automakers have to reduce CO2, and leaner cars produce fewer emissions.
All fine and dandy, but then he writes this faux pas:
Despite its Japanese heritage, the company (Alcantara SpA) only recently diversified beyond European brands to Asians. (Alcantara SpA CEO Andrea) Boragno said the breakthrough came when Lexus used the covering for its LC500 sports coupe, which debuted at this year’s Detroit auto show. “This is an extremely meaningful signal,” he says.
Say what?! Use of the material in a Lexus-branded vehicle actually dates back to early 1999, when the just-launched Toyota Altezza was first exported to Europe as the 1st-generation Lexus IS. Perhaps the fabric’s early branding in Japan as Ecsaine muddied the waters for Mr. Gibbs, but they are, in fact, one and the same. Use of Alcantara was more sporadic on the 2nd-gen Lexus IS that debuted in late 2005, but it was present and accounted for on some European-market trim levels, on the IS F V8 and, later, IS F Sport models. When the latter were launched just over 6 years ago in the United States, yours truly wrote that
…Lexus’ official press information refers to the IS V6 F Sport seats as having microfiber seat inserts and leather bolsters, while the IS F’s are described as having Alcantara seat inserts with leather bolsters. This is no mere semantic inconsistency that slipped by Lexus proofreaders, but two different yet similar (but by no means identical) insert materials. Bear with us as we delve into a mini-crash course in textiles.
The whole genre of microfibers dates back to embryonic experiments in the late 1950s, but received a significant push from Japan during the following decade, culminating in the work of Dr. Miyoshi Okamoto, a scientist working for the Japanese chemical company Toray that, in 1970, first produced Ultrasuede, which has been described as “the world’s first ultra-microfiber”. Two years later, a joint venture between Italian chemical company ENI and Toray formed Alcantara SpA in order to manufacture and distribute the material.
Curiously, for years a multi-pronged naming strategy took hold, with Europe favoring the company’s Alcantara name, North America using the more generic-sounding Ultrasuede and Asia (especially Japan) using the Ecsaine name so familiar to us 1st-generation Lexus IS diehards. Eventually, though, Toray/Alcantara SpA sought to standardize the Alcantara name worldwide, and the change from Ecsaine to Alcantara as of the 2004 model year did not in any way alter the material’s composition in Lexus IS seats.
Wikipedia informs us that genuine Alcantara consists of 68% polyester and 32% polyurethane, whereas microfiber can be made from polyesters, polyamides (nylon), and/or a conjugation of polyester and polyamide or other polymers. While not divulging the precise composition of the IS V6 F Sport seat inserts, Lexus assures us that “it’s suede-like, similar to Alcantara, and of the same premium quality”. This author also suspects that, as the originators of ultra-microfiber, Alcantara may well be charging a premium for its use, a premium more easily absorbed by the IS F’s higher pricing versus its V6 siblings.
Thus, Lexus’ use of Alcantara is no novelty, but actually goes back over 15 years! Granted, the LC coupe’s more upmarket positioning may allow for broader use of the material than in the less expensive IS line’s first two generations, perhaps more akin to some of the interior options on the LFA supercar. Having owned 2 Lexus ISs with mixed material seats (Leather/Ecsaine on my 1st-gen and leather/microfiber on my 2nd-gen), count me as a fan (even if other pundits disagree).
In an interesting aside, the Toyota Global Newsroom’s announcement of the 2017 Toyota 86 mid-life facelift mentions that the Japanese domestic market’s top-of-the-line GT Limited version uses a mix of Grand Luxe artificial suede by Seiren Co., Ltd. on the instrument panel and door trim and genuine Alcantara on the seats.