Alcantara and a similar material called Ultrasuede, are synthetic suede materials automakers use to give interiors an upscale look and feel. Once used only on supercars like the new Acura NSX, the material is now finding its way into more and more driveways. The 2015 Toyota Camry XSE features the material and cars do not come any more mainstream than the Camry.
Alcantara and Ultrasuede are excellent automotive seating materials for a number of reasons. Like suede, the material is grippy. Used on your driver’s seat, it helps to keep you in place during hard cornering or stopping. This makes sense in a car like the Dodge Viper. The material is also breathable. A breathable material is always preferable on any seating surface, but on upscale models it is particularly useful if the seats include ventilation. Some manufacturers have used it on steering wheels and shift knobs as well as on other “static” interior surfaces.
The marketing of Alcantara and Ultrasuede has been very successful. It is marketed as a premium material. No automaker has ever successfully marketed a premium man-made (synthetic) material as a substitute for leather – until recently. Like all premium things, Altantara and Ultrasuede are considered premium because of taste. That said, it has a good reputation for durability, is soft to the touch, and it looks the part. As the animals rights movement continues to grow an entirely man-made material like Alcantara or Ultrasuede also has the benefit of not involving an animal’s death in its manufacture. Although plastics are not typically associated with the green movement, in this case synthetic suede is not at a disadvantage compared to leather. Leather manufacturing is a very chemical-intense operation and has a reputation as being relatively “dirty.” The two materials are also not at odds. Many automakers use Alcantara as a seat insert and trim the seat with leather.
History of Alcantara and Ultrasuede
Alcantara and Ultrasuede are different marketing names of the same type of material. The material is a textile in the group called microfibers. The material was invented, developed, and patented by Miyoshi Okamoto, a Japanese research scientist at Toray Plastics in 1970. Toray continues to be the manufacturer of these brands in partnership with others. The material was first used in high-end clothing and fashion accessories. Its first use in an automobile was in the Fiat X 1/9 in 1978. Shortly after that, Audi began to use the material in its vehicles and then Lancia used it more extensively. In 2008, after many years of commercialization in partnership with an Italian company, automotive seating kits were established as a product line. In 2009 the material was certified as “carbon neutral” by European regulators. Beginning in late 2014 the Toyota Camry XSE began to ship using Ultrasuede on seats and door panels marking one of the first mainstream automotive applications of the material.
Ultrasuede and Alcantara have a premium feel, a reputation for durability, and is both breathable and high friction. Don’t be surprised if your next automobile offers this material on seats and interior panels on the vehicle’s top trim level.
Photo notes: The main story image at top is the Acura NSX. The black material is Alcantara. The second image is a 2015 Toyota Camry XSE. The center sections are trimmed in Ultrasuede.