Automakers’ growing desire to cut weight from cars wherever they can is significantly boosting sales of an upmarket leather alternative, says the boss of the company that makes the substitute.
“We have noticed an increased interest in the lightness of the material,” Alcantara CEO Andrea Boragno told me.
Demand for Alcantara (which is the name of the product and the company) rose 50 percent from the previous year to boost the Italian firm’s revenue from the automotive side of its business to 133 million euros for the financial year that ended last month. Alcantara also provides its products to the fashion and furniture industries. Automotive accounts for a little more than a third of the company’s total revenue.
Boragno estimates the synthetic suede is about half the weight of leather. That means using a 5-meter covering made from the leather alternative would save about 2kg per car compared with the real thing.
In the past, that savings was only interesting to supercar makers. For example, Lamborghini switched to Alcantara on the Superleggera (super light) version of its V-10 powered Gallardo supercar in 2010. But now Boragno says demand to lighten cars is on the rise because all automakers have to reduce CO2, and leaner cars produce fewer emissions.
Alcantara was patented in Japan in 1970 by Toray Industries, which still owns the company and its signature product. Toray decided to locate the company in Italy to give it a more premium image. The first car to use Alcantara was the Fiat X1/9 two-seat sports car in 1978. These days the material is found in cars ranging from the Skoda Superb to the Porsche Cayman GT4.
Despite its Japanese heritage, the company only recently diversified beyond European brands to Asians. 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. The company is also taking its first steps into China, where Buick is using the material to help push the brand further upmarket there, Boragno says.
For many, natural leather will remain the material of choice in a premium car, but in an era when automakers need to count every kilo, Alcantara sees a chance to persuade a number of manufacturers to break away from the herd.