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Green Machines: The new generation of luxury, eco-friendly cars

Recycled and sustainable materials are increasingly finding their way into the cabins of the world’s most luxurious cars, writes Toby Hagon.

What do wine corks, plastic water bottles and fishing nets have in common? They’re all being used to create fresh and innovative materials for the eco-friendly cars of the future.

Whereas once the default for luxury cars was leather and wood with liberal lashings of chrome. These days, however, the expectations in the evolving luxury space are far broader. This is especially true when it comes to younger buyers. The next generation is increasingly concerned about the source of materials and their environmental impact.

Car designers are progressively turning to sustainable and recycled materials. Not only for a look that stands out visually but for design that has tactility and quality at the forefront. It’s sustainability that is at the heart of the green movement, pushing way beyond electric drivetrains.

Audi e-Tron GT has floor mats and carpet made of Econyl

The eco-friendly cars of the future

MINI has embraced the idea for its latest concepts, enlisting fashion guru Paul Smith to reimagine its cars. Fresh from announcing it would phase out leather trim in its cars, MINI challenged Smith to create a one-off show-car that adhered to the themes of simplicity, transparency and sustainability.

“Paul asked essential questions right at the start of the design process with his non-automotive and therefore fresh perspective,” says MINI design chief Oliver Heimer of the MINI Strip concept. The Strip does without many of the plastic components often used as trim, instead showcasing the structure of the vehicle.

“Together I think we have created something truly unique, by going back to basics, reducing things down and stripping the car,” says Smith of the industrial look. There’s cork on the doors and dash, and floor mats made of recycled rubber. Door handles use climbing rope. It’s the next evolution for the British brand, which also created the Vision Urbanaut. This futuristic people mover does away with chrome. Instead, it focuses on warmer finishes and knitted textile, “which combines cosiness and quality with softness and comfort,” says Smith.

Leather no more? Searching for eco-friendly alternatives

Rolls-Royce, Bentley and Porsche have no intention of getting rid of leather, at least not yet. Nor does Aston Martin, according to design boss Marek Reichman, who believes there will “always be options”. But Reichmann sees the market shifting. And in the quest to keep cars appealing, designers are increasingly turning to the world of fashion for inspiration. He points to Hermès as offering non-leather alternatives, including one made from mushrooms.

“We will be there very, very soon,” Reichman says of the shift to sustainable materials. “We have various materials in the lab being tested.” That’s indicative of an industry increasingly catering to those who prefer materials that have nothing to do with animal products.

Volvo design boss Robin Page says the shift is consumer-driven. “We’re finding our customers’ ethics are changing a little bit. This next generation is far more interested in modern materials that are sustainable and not connected with animals.”

Porsche now offers a leather-free interior for its Taycan electric eco-friendly cars. It sells for a premium over the leather, which can still be chosen. Tesla was the one to first embrace the leather-free alternatives, replacing it with something that clearly has an artificial flavour.

Porsche Taycan's  leather-free interior
Porsche Taycan’s leather-free interior

But the tech-focused buyers of the EV pioneer clearly don’t see that as a negative. In fact, they’re embracing the vegan sales pitch. And luxury newcomer Genesis has a sustainability focus for its radical X Concept. It uses upcycled leather for the steering wheel and airbag cover.

Eco-friendly cars: Shifting gears towards sustainable materials

Many modern materials are being driven by waste problems embracing the world, including fishing nets and drink bottles. The upcoming Audi e-Tron GT, for example, is one of many cars to have floor mats and carpet made of Econyl. This is produced from recycled nylon fibres from everything from fishing nets to carpet waste.

As well as providing a cheap and steady supply of raw materials, potentially cleaning part of the planet on the way to a new look has a distinct marketing ring. PET plastic drink bottles, for example, are now readily used for seat finishes and carpets. Albeit, it’s been given more palatable names, such as Puls in an Audi, and Kvadrat in a Land Rover. With the right treatment, customers would never know the materials are made of recycled plastic. In a Volvo EV, for example, the carpets are wholly PET bottles, except for the colouring. One eco-friendly car can use the plastic from hundreds of recycled bottles. Volvo’s EV spinoff brand Polestar is also embracing sustainability. It uses recycled plastics to create stronger, lighter materials that can then reduce energy consumption.

Polestar uses recycled plastics

Looking ahead to greener times

Meanwhile, Land Rover is shifting towards using recycled plastics and eventually radically changing the materials in its cars. “There’s a bit of a cultural change,” says designer Martin Buffery. “We have to try … to move with the times.”

He points to the younger generation and says, “It’s not going to be too long until they’re buying the vehicles … we’ve got in development”. He says he can’t see a day when plastics are no longer used in cars, but “what we can do is eradicate either single-use plastics or virgin material”.

There’s even an Australian connection in Land Rover’s move, with the company using eucalyptus fibres for an innovative seat finish. It comes off the back of BMW using eucalyptus, hemp and kenaf (a type of hibiscus plant) for the finishes in its i3, which also boasts olive-leaf extract to colour the leather.

It’s indicative of an automotive world moving with the greener times.

This article originally appeared in volume 40 of Signature Luxury Travel & Style magazine. Subscribe to the latest issue today.