The aroma inside the car is rich, earthy, intoxicating. The seating material that produces the scent - leather, of course - is supple and smooth. The driver easily slides into place behind the steering wheel of ... the Mercury Tracer.
That's right, Mercury's entry car now sports leather seats, joining traditional havens such as luxury sedans and sport-utilities. It's another sign of growing popularity for the tanned cowhide.
Leather and seat suppliers cite several reasons for greater demand:
Leasing, which relies on good resale prices, has encouraged consumers to choose luxury options.
Leather helps sport-utility owners slip into those tall seats. Older drivers, too, like the slide effect - on any kind of car.
Baby boomers who want only the best tend to pick leather.
Car owners are keeping their vehicles longer, and they want the seats to last longer, too.
Whatever the reasons, leather providers are benefiting.
Bill Bimbi, technical service representative for Seton Co.'s Leather Division in Norristown, Pa., estimates Seton's U.S. business has grown at least fourfold in the last decade; globally, it has grown seven times as large. Seton supplies all of Chrysler Corp.'s worldwide leather, 90 percent of Nissan's and 70 percent of Mercedes-Benz's.
Eagle Ottawa Leather Co. supplies leather for 80 models for several automakers, says Jeffrey Bonello, marketing manager for the Grand Haven, Mich., supplier. Five years ago, the number was about half that.
Natural yet distinct
Leather, too, is changing. In the past, leather car seats may have had the distinct aroma of hide, but thick finishes gave them the look and feel of vinyl. 'By today's standards, it would be completely unacceptable,' says Lorene Boettcher, international styling coordinator for Seton's Leather Division.
Suppliers say it has always been difficult to develop leather processing that meets automotive specifications, particularly in the temperature-extreme United States.
But today, says Bonello, baby boomers who grew up with disposable and plastic items want leather because it is a natural material.
To meet requests for kinder, gentler leathers, Eagle Ottawa is testing fleets fitted with an aniline leather, which has been colored by transparent dyes rather than pigments or other opaque materials. It leaves the hide soft and natural, more like glove rather than saddle leather.
Seton has developed a nonaniline process for a soft and natural leather, too, for Chrysler. It will be introduced on the automaker's 1999 LH line. Yet it is a challenge, Bimbi says, to balance a natural look and feel with an individualized design. 'There are a limited number of things you can do with (leather) and still make it look like leather,' he says.
Brand definition also has created new leather sales, such as for the Mercury Tracer. The 1998 version is the first Tracer with a leather option. The cost is $280, available only as part of a $795 option package.
'We were looking for ways to make Tracer stand out in a crowded field of competitors,' says Mike Jennings, brand manager for the Tracer.
Unique designs also are being used to create definition within a brand.
Cadillac introduced Eagle Ottawa's Odyssey leather on the seat inserts - the primary seating surfaces - and the door trim of the 1998 Cadillac Seville SLS. Odyssey has a free-form design patterned after the interior walls of 16th- and 17th-century palaces of Florence, Italy.
Jan-Willem Vester, spokesman for Cadillac, says the division chose Odyssey as a way to distinguish between two models, the refined SLS and the sporty STS (with perforated leather seat inserts), in a year when Cadillac discontinued fabric as an option for the Seville. Why no more cloth? Vester says 95 percent of Seville customers ordered leather.
Eagle Ottawa's Bonello says Odyssey can require up to 60 percent more work than other leathers. Eagle Ottawa kept the price moderate, he says, so that a customer would use it. Plus the supplier wanted to help prove the company can deliver the whole package, from creative design to tanning.
Eagle Ottawa also has developed a metal-free tanning process. It's tough enough for automotive leather but mild enough so when a car is scrapped, its leather parts can be chopped up, put directly into soil and used as compost. The result, called Phoenix, made its debut on the 1998 Volkswagen Passat.
Seton developed a similar product that it supplies to Audi. This type of leather could prove particularly important in Europe, where vehicle recyclability is a more pressing concern than in the United States.
In leather design, Boettcher says textures and patterns will begin to replace plainer leather surfaces. These patterned grains will set vehicle brands apart and will be inspired by the decorative arts and fashion, she says. Geometric and technical patterns, such as repeated cubes or diamonds, will be used in contemporary and high-performance types of vehicles to greet the millennium. Natural patterns, such as basket weaves, will be used in sport-utilities.
Today most hides come from North American cattle. Suppliers say they aren't worried about running out. Still, Johnson Controls is exploring other sources, such as South America, says Thelma Sibley, who manages the seat supplier's color and material studio.
And they're looking at other sources for hides. One candidate for taking the cow out of the driver's seat: water buffalo, aroma and all.
Karalynn Ott is an free-lance reporter based in Grosse Pointe Park, Mich.