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Fancier fabrics making a comeback in cars

Fabric is making a comeback inside cars, and their designers are returning to high-quality materials that are so nice some customers may actually prefer them.
Image:  Interior of a Nissan Rogue
Cost-conscious new models like the Nissan Rogue (left) are sporting cutting-edge

The trend toward accessible luxury has been well-documented in recent years. Brands like Coach and Louis Vuitton have become household names, and mainstream stores like Target have recruited famous designers to provide signature products at affordable prices. So it’s not surprising that coddled consumers have also sought luxury in their cars — even those from plain-jane mainstream brands.

Maybe we are running low on cowhide or maybe people are just looking for something different, but fabric is making a comeback inside cars, and their designers are returning to high-quality materials that are so nice some customers may actually prefer them.

These fabrics are appearing in adventuresome color combinations that spice up previously predictably dull cabins, and there is an emerging array of synthetic materials that look and feel convincingly like leather and suede that can be combined with the new fabrics for an exciting multi-material appearance.

“The much more global approach to design, in particular at the (American) Big Three, has more design influence from Europe, and that is driving the fabric houses to get more creative,” reported Joe Phillipi, president of AutoTrends Consulting. “I suspect that the emphasis on cloth may also be a means of keeping costs down without ending up with a cheesy-looking interior,” he said.

Through the 1970s, mainstream American cars featured mostly vinyl upholstery that was insufferably hot in the summer and glacial in the winter. Only luxury models from Lincoln and Cadillac featured soft velour fabric, and European cars often had durable, tightly woven fabrics. Gradually, American customers began to be attracted by supple, perforated leather seats that provided soft and breathable comfort. As with Coach handbags, leather seats soon migrated to the masses, eventually growing to the majority of seats in many new car models.

At the same time, it seemed as though the cost-cutters at car companies were pushing consumers toward the thousand-or-more dollar upgrade to leather seats (and no doubt collecting a profit along the way) by specifying the least appealing, least interesting materials available for car upholstery. The dull gray rental car-grade seats became known as “mouse fur” interiors, and it’s not hard to fathom why car buyers were paying extra for an upgrade to leather.

But now consumers are free from having to choose between unappealing mouse fur and costly and temperature-sensitive leather thanks to the emergence of a new generation of fabrics that feature chunky textures, a soft feel and some daring color schemes. And while luxury car buyers are, for now at least, still married to the notion that only leather will do, entry-level and mainstream models are seeing a flood of innovation inside the cabin.

This means that cost-conscious new models like the Ford Focus and Nissan Rogue are sporting cutting-edge fabric and interior design, and it has earned favorable notice from the car enthusiast press, whose critics can be merciless about perceived shortcomings.

“For our new Focus, we departed on a new interior design theme with a much more modern and up-to-date appearance,” explained Susan Lampinen, group chief designer for Ford’s color and materials group.

The old, unloved materials had a flat weave that gives a smooth, uniform surface, Lampinen explained. But “modern” fabrics use different yarn sizes and different weaves to put some depth and texture in the material’s surface. Agreeing to terms in describing these more appealing materials can even be a challenge, explained Raymond Devers, color designer for Nissan Design America.

“I remember when we were talking to the fabric suppliers about five years ago, asking for more modern appearance,” Devers recalled. “They said, ‘Can you describe that a little better?” he laughed.

Modern, according to designers, denotes tight-knit constructions and a more technical appearance, like that of active outdoor equipment and attire. An example is so-called “spacer fabric,” which is three-dimensional, textured fabric that can be found at the bottom and back of a car seat — areas where the driver makes contact, giving a more cushioned surface to sit on. It’s like the fabric you’d see at REI in sports equipment, Devers said.

After a couple decades of drab adherence to the school uniform of black, gray and tan, colors are about to get more varied and interesting, according to Ford’s Lampinen. “You’re going to see really interesting colors in the [car’s] interior, both in full seats and accents,” she predicted.

While Nissan’s Devers also expects a broader color palette, he is wary of frightening off customers. North America tends to be a very conservative market, he said. Chances that Nissan has taken in the past haven’t always worked. A case in point is the unusual colors inside the Murano crossover SUV, which proved to be unpopular with consumers.

“In the past we played around with slightly tweaked beiges, which had mixed results,” Devers said. “The Murano had a cabernet color that was very bold for the time when it came out,” he recalled. But despite slow sales the designers were satisfied that the bold interior helped establish the Murano’s unique identity in a crowded market. “We were still happy,” he said.

Fabric may even begin to make inroads into the luxury end of the new car market, though as an adjunct to, not as a replacement for leather, as designers concoct interesting combinations of environmentally-friendly leather that avoids the use of chromium in its tanning process. Textile materials and faux leather will also create new styles, said Devers.

“It’s the balance of trying to put something new and interesting out there, but at the same time have U.S. consumers accept it,” he concluded.