|Rick Kranz is product editor for Automotive News|
Volkswagen offers a seating surface in its redesigned 2012 Passat that its main competitors won't even consider marketing.
The Passat is VW's new mid-sized sedan. The new car was specifically redesigned for the U.S. market and it is assembled at the automaker's new plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. In terms of size, price and features, the Passat was developed to compete with the Chevrolet Malibu, Chrysler 200, Ford Fusion, Honda Accord and Toyota Camry.
VW believes the Passat's interior has one big advantage over those competitors: leatherette. None of the competitors mentioned above offers that seating surface.
The word "leatherette" is used to describe a man-made seat material that has the look of leather, but can be offered at a fraction of the cost of real leather.
You might remember it under a different name: vinyl.
Years ago, that type of seat covering was common in U.S. cars. Nearly every nameplate had an offering. Today, the choice is a fabric covering or optional leather.
The primary reason it lost favor with U.S. buyers is that the material is hot to the touch if the sun is beating on the seat, or it can be icy cold on a cloudy winter day. Also, the seating surface became synonymous with a U.S. automaker's lowest-priced models. The material execution looked cheap.
VW's leatherette seats certainly don't look cheap.
In fact, VW markets leatherette as a premium feature and the material's texture might fool some Passat riders.
Over the years, VW has offered leatherette seats in its models with some success. VW says its core U.S. buyers often select leatherette. The surface is easy to clean and there's a perception of value.
Now, VW will market leatherette as a premium feature on the new Passat, arguably VW's most important offering in the United States in years.
The base 2012 Passat S comes with cloth seats, but leatherette is standard on the more expensive SE. The top-of-the-line SEL has real leather.
When the 2012 Passat was being developed, dealers made their opinion clear that leatherette is an important feature they could market and sell.
VW's response? Leatherette is available in not one, not two, but three colors.
If leatherette turns out to be a popular Passat selection, expect one or two competitors to adjust their interior choices to include the material.
But don't expect them to call it vinyl.