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Ask Patty Fetured in Mercury News

Published May 20th 2007, 3:08pm by Patty Streeter in Pressroom Articles
Sitting down is looking up
CHANGES REFLECT AN INCREASED EMPHASIS ON INTERIORS

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More seat innovations are coming. ""Most people are spending more and more time in their cars...

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if(requestedWidth > 0){ document.getElementById('articleViewerGroup').style.width = requestedWidth + "px"; document.getElementById('articleViewerGroup').style.margin = "0px 0px 10px 10px"; } If you think picking a car seat these days simply comes down to cloth or leather, think again. Today's seats are full of innovations when it comes to fabrics, and gadgetry when it comes to technology.

In Ford's 2008 Escape Hybrid sport-utility vehicle, the cloth seats come from recycled fiber, saving water and electricity and cutting pollution. In Toyota's bestselling Camry, you can get a seat fabric that's gentle on the skin. And on 10 Chrysler models an optional fabric keeps stains and odors away.

Throw in gizmos - ones that not only heat but cool your backside; others that give you either a slow and gentle or a fast and vigorous massage - and it's obvious automakers are standing up when it comes to sitting down.

"The interior is where the customer is 100 percent of the time when they're using the vehicle," said Paul Williamsen, a product educator for Toyota. His company considers safety, style and product features when designing seats for Toyota, Lexus and Scion models, he said.

Toyota's 2007 Camry XLE gets seats made with a fabric designed to be gentle on the skin. The seat cloths are treated with Fraichir, a brand name for a process that involves coating fibers with sericin that comes from silkworm cocoons.

It's particularly popular in Japan, where "a quality fabric is still seen as a more upscale interior than leather," Williamsen said. The company is gauging how U.S. Camry buyers like it.

In the new Lexus LS 460 L sedan, there's a $12,765 executive-class seating package that comes with a ceiling-mounted 3.0 VGA video monitor, four-zone air conditioning and a right rear seat with a foot rest that pops up as the seat reclines. While rear seats in the standard long-wheelbase LS, which sells for $71,000, recline 28 degrees, the right-side rear seat in the executive package reclines 45 degrees. Three infrared sensors near that seat measure lap, upper body and seat temperature and adjust the air flow. "It's really the ultimate," Williamsen said.

`Green' fibers

Ford's 2008 Escape Hybrid and the XLT trim level of the gasoline version of the Escape, a compact SUV, come with seats made with 100 percent post-industrial materials. Created by InterfaceFABRIC, Ford says making seat fabric from recycled fibers will save 600,000 gallons of water, 1.8 million pounds of carbon dioxide and 7 million hours of electricity, compared with making them from virgin fibers.

Carol Kordich, a color and materials designer with Ford, said "green" architects have been using recycled materials for carpets, wall materials and wood trim for years. "We thought, `Why can't we use that on our vehicle?' It's a green story," she said.

The seat material comes from scraps of unused fiber, trimmings or cuttings, that are gathered, melted down and extruded into yarn. Ford doesn't charge customers extra for the seats with the sustainable fibers and won't say how much it cost vs. regular cloth seats.

While some customers might appreciate Ford's effort, most won't notice it, Kordich said, and that's fine. "If it's a good design, you don't know that it's been recycled," she said.

Starting with some 2006 models, Chrysler began offering seats with Yes Essentials, a fabric that resists stains and odors and even cuts down on static electricity. It's now available on 10 Chrysler models, ranging from the Chrysler Aspen and Nitro SUVs to the Jeep Compass, Patriot and Wrangler.

Chrysler had been dinged in the past by customers who said their vehicles got soiled too easily, said Joel Schlader, a brand manager of the Sebring sedan and convertible. Adopting the Yes Essential fabric created by Milliken & Co. was a way to battle that perception.

"It's worry-free," he said, "a natural for anybody with pets or kids." Research shows that a quarter of drivers eat or drink in their cars every day, and 60 percent do it at least once a week.

Of course, he said, the best way to test the new fabric is to spill something. He's seen ketchup stains and Sharpie markings come out with just a little soap and water.

No extra charge

On the Sebring, the Yes Essentials seats are used in specific models - it's standard on the Touring sedan and part of a no-cost option package on the '08 Sebring convertible - so Chrysler doesn't charge extra for the fabric.

And more seat innovations are coming. "Most people are spending more and more time in their cars every day, especially in California, with the time they commute. Plus, the technology is enabling us to do things we couldn't do in the past," Schlader said.

In "The Big Book of Car Culture" (Motorbooks, 2005), authors Jim Hinckley and Jon G. Robinson write, "It's amazing how long it took for cars to have adjustable seats." Early vehicles had flat bench seats, just like the ones used in horse carriages. Manual adjustments came first, and a few models offered power seats in the 1950s. By the '90s, even pickup trucks and rugged SUVs had power seats.

Heated seats, long available, are now being complemented by ventilated or cooled seats.

Many cars offer either manual or power adjustments for comfort and lumbar support, and some upscale models, such as Mercedes-Benz' S-Class and Lexus LS sedans, offer massaging features.

For drivers like Nena Cuthberson of Livermore, much of that sounds like gimmickry.

"To me those things are over the top, but some people do like gadgets. I'm a more practical person," said Cuthberson, while waiting for her BMW Z4 roadster to be dried at a Fremont car wash.

Her car has leather seats ("absolutely"), but she didn't opt for the heated version.

Another car-wash patron, physicist Henry Band of Fremont, has power and heated seats in his BMW 530 sedan. He has simple needs: Seats that adjust to properly fit his nearly 6-foot-3 frame.

`Ride without hide'

Not everyone is pleased with seats these days, however. The Ecology Center, an environmental group in Ann Arbor, Mich., recently named the 10 most toxic vehicles, based on the chemicals used in their seat cushions, arm rests, wiring and more. Cars such as the Chevrolet Aveo, Kia Rio, Scion xB and Subaru Forester made that list.

And animal-rights groups, such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, advocate a boycott of leather seats. Its "ride without hide" campaign, which promotes synthetic leather or cloth seats, is endorsed by such celebrities as singer Paul McCartney and actress Alicia Silverstone.

Jody DeVere, president of askpatty.com, a Web site offering car advice to women, said making better seats will make Ford, General Motors and Chrysler more competitive with Japanese and European brands.

She just spent time in the 2008 Saturn Vue. "I got into the car and immediately when I sat down, I went, `Oh my gosh, the leather on these seats is so soft,'" she said. Saturn has contracted with a European company to make these new seats.

Women buy more than 50 percent of all vehicles, and affect 85 percent of all car-buying decisions. They appreciate seat comfort, special touches such as hand-stitched leather and little recesses in a car's foot well so high heels on a left foot have a place to rest, she said.

"As for women, the interior design in many ways is much more important to us," DeVere said. "It's really what makes us fall in love with a car."

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