We love the smell and touch of high quality leather. But there’s a big environmental impact due to the production of leather in the quantities that companies like MINI need. So much so that MINI has made the bold decision to eliminate leather from its coming starting with the all new J01 MINI Cooper electric. But can the vegan only interior compete against leather? We went hands-on with the new MIIN to find out.

What’s wrong with leather? It’s complicated. While the leather industry is vocal about its use as a smart byproduct of livestock farming, there’s some serious concerns around its production and amount of impact it has on the environment. Converting animal skin to leather demands vast energy and involves hazardous chemicals like mineral salts, formaldehyde, coal-tar derivatives, oils, dyes, some cyanide-based finishes. Suffice to say it’s not the most natural and environmentally safe process. It’s also not inline with MINI’s brand image of being environmentally conscious and animal friendly. But how do you replace something as iconic as leather seats?

Vegan interior

Hands-on with MINI’s Vegan Friendly Interior

Ok so leather isn’t the best for the environment. But can there be a legitimate alternative that feels as good as MINI’s Lounge Leather or BMW’s Merino Leather? We spent time in the new 2024 J01 MINI Cooper Electric and talked to the people behind the new generation of MINI products to get some answers.

Enter Vescin – synthetic leather that is made of recycled materials that is itself 100% recyclable.

BMW and MINI are so confident in products like Vescin (BMW’s version I called Sensafin – an improved version of Sensatec) they they’re already being used in several cars with MSRPs well over $100,000.

Vegan interior

What’s it like in person? Getting into the new J01 MINI Cooper electric it’s clear that Vescin is a step-up from what we’ve known as Leatherette. The off-white perforated seats in the MINI Cooper electric we experienced were softer to the touch than leatherette and felt much more supple. But how do they compare with leather? In short very well. Compared with the standard Chesterfield or Cross Punch leather seating, Vescin feels softer and more premium. It’s not on par with the feel and softness of MINI’s Lounge Leather but then again that’s $2500 option on the Signature Trim.

What was on par with Lounge Leather and even the high-end Merino Leather on BMWs was the Vescin material on the new MINI’s steering wheel. In fact as I put my hands on the wheel for the first time I turned to one of the program managers of the new J01 and told him this clearly must be leather. He smiled and told me it was in fact a higher-end version of the same Vescin on the seats. Having experienced leatherette in various forms for decades in BMWs and MINIs, I simply couldn’t believe how it felt essentially identical to MINI’s higher-end Lounge Leather.

While I only sampled a couple of different seats made of the new vegan friendly Vescin, it was clear that MINI was right to be confident about its ability to replace leather in terms of look and feel. Does it have the same smell? Naturally no. But then again the low-end leather on most cars (I’d put Cross Punch and Chesterfield in that category) doesn’t have much of a scent either. And when it does it’s often due to chemicals designed to replicate the scent of full grain leather.

Our Early Verdict

The concept of taking leather out of cars has become emotional for some. But the reality is real, full grain leather doesn’t exist in cars unless you’re well into the six figure price range. What we’ve had with MINI’s mid-tier leather is essentially a veneer applied to leatherette on about 80% of seats (the rest is leatherette). And in our experience it can scratch, stain and eventually crack with use. While Lounge Leather is much higher quality, even that will suffer with age unless you like the patina of cracking bolsters.

Vescin solves all of those problems with an easy to clean, long lasting product that happens to be much more environmentally friendly to make and is 100 recyclable to boot. Crucially it looks and feels better than the mid-tier leather we’ve come to know in MINIs. And there’s hope for a higher quality version as well given the Vescin on the steering wheel we felt was on par with the best Lounge Leather we’ve even experienced in MINIs. Add in the ability to stay cooler in extreme heat and it feels like a real step forward.

Yet final verdict will have to come after a few years of living with the new material. While Leatherette has proven to be incredible durable (more so than leather in our experience) we’ll withhold judgement on that front until we have real data.

Until then Vescin looks and feels very promising in our initial experience. As much as we love the feel of that $2,500 Lounge Leather in MINIs, we’re ready to move on to something all around better.