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I've got small kids. Should I get leather or cloth car seats?

We're close to getting a new vehicle and my question is about the upholstery. We have young kids: does leather make sense or synthetic (fabric, and/or is vinyl even offered these days)? Is one easier to clean? Which is more durable? – Kallie in Campbell River, B.C.

New-car buyers typically have a choice between fabric or leather seats, while some manufacturers offer vegan-friendly leather alternatives (a.k.a. vinyl, pleather, or leatherette). With toddlers on board, you want auto upholstery that can handle spilled milk, cookie crumbs and juice-box projectiles.

It will probably cost a bit extra, but it's difficult to dispute the advantages of a leather interior.

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"The answer to the question really is leather. I raised my kids in cars with nothing but leather. I still have two of those cars; now my children are 25 and 28 and the leather looks good. So I would say that's the way to go," says Doug Pollock, owner of Oregon-based SMS Auto Fabrics.

Fabric or vinyl interiors are not as resistant to punctures and tears. Leather and vinyl are easier to care for – especially when it comes to unexpected spills. Despite the volume of lotions, potions and conditioning creams on the market, leather and vinyl can be cleaned with a slightly damp cloth. Particularly in the case of leather, it should be wiped immediately with a dry cloth.

"A lot of liquids will turn a leather hard. And even if you use a conditioner, sometimes it's not going to soften it up enough," says Ken Thiffeault, of Tommy's Auto Upholstery in Victoria.

"If you really want to go fancy, they make things that say they clean leather, but they're really just soap and water," says Pollock. "You want something mild, you don't want anything abrasive or you might take the surface off. And anything with a solvent in it might take the surface colour off, so you don't want to do that. On the other hand, I've got two cars with leather that have more than 200,000 miles. In both cases, the leather looks good, and all we used was soap and water."

Of course, dirt will be more noticeable on any type of light-coloured upholstery, but leather and vinyl won't hold dust or absorb odours and liquid the way fabric does.

"Leather would be my vote," says Pollock. "I don't know that you can put this in terms of exact science, but certainly in my business you see a lot of people who say, 'I've got this terrible stain in my cloth,' or 'Oh, I ripped the cloth,' and that's why I'm in business. If everybody had nothing but leather I wouldn't have nearly as much business."

Leather upholstery (or one of its synthetic cousins) will outlast fabric, and you'll find it's more kid-friendly. Your decision, however, may come down to cost.

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You'll pay more for real leather, but it's also better for resale value. If it turns out that a leather finish is not in your budget, you can install custom seat covers (available at most auto suppliers) to help minimize damage when transporting your mob.

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About the Author

Joanne Will is based in Toronto. She has been a regular contributor to The Globe and Mail since 2009. In 2014, she was a Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan. More


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