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Top car colors

The hot car color for 2004?

Think Lone Ranger: Hi ho, Silver!

Top car colors
in North America
 1. Silver
 

2. Black

 3. Blue
 4. Gray
 5. White
 6. Red
 7. Green
 8. Beige
 9. Gold
 10. Brown

This year, at least one in every four cars, trucks, vans and SUVs will sport a silver paint job -- up from one in five in 2000.

"Silver was really the unofficial color of the millennium," says Alan Eggly, senior designer for color and materials for Ford Motor Company. "It really accentuates the lines of a vehicle."

Eggly contends that color is third on the list when buyers choose a car, right behind body style and price.

"It's extremely important," he says.

And silver is one of the colors that never really go out of style.

"Silver, black and white are always up there," says Tom Libby, director of industry analysis for the Power Information Network LLC, an affiliate of J. D. Power and Associates.

There's a good reason silver has become the "it" color for cars. "Silver is very mechanical looking," says Ron Will, manager of advanced concepts and design for Subaru of America. "It has that mechanical presence."

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The value of silver seems to cross price lines, as well. "It's transcendent," says Eggly. "Silver is No. 1 on most vehicle lines, whether it's a [car], SUV or truck. It's so versatile, it's like black in your wardrobe."

Am I blue?
Although silver is king, automakers are seeing other colors, too.

"Finally the world has awakened to blue," says Christine Dickey, color and trim manager for Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc. "Blue and green cycle against each other," she explains. When green is popular, blue is not and vice versa.

In the '90s, "for seven or eight years, green was huge," says Chris Webb, exterior color and trim designer for General Motors Design.

But now blue is back. "Blue inventory is turning quick," says Dickey.

One hot trend that may borrow from both: new shades of silver with hints of blue, green or even tan.

"We're also seeing a resurgence of mechanical-looking grays -- not super dark," says Eggly. The metallic colors run from cool, bluish-hued tones to warmer shades with tan highlights.

When it comes to sports cars, red is the most popular color -- accounting for a full third of the category.

Drivers of entry-level compacts and premium luxury cars both prefer Henry Ford's old fave: black. So do the drivers of luxury SUVs and luxury sports cars.

Keep your eyes sharp and you may even notice a few orange or purple models on the road this year.

"You'll see orange happening in home interiors," says Webb. When the auto industry borrows the hue "it will be a very clean chromatic color" for sporty cars and "a slightly richer more pumpkin" shade for SUVs, he predicts. "Orange is an important trend."

And don't forget the regional variations. "The Northeast is darker," says Eggly. "But past the Rust Belt and into the Sun Belt, everybody wants light, light colors."

All that glitters
Thanks to new advances in paints, metallic colors are hotter than ever.

"One of the things that is really interesting about the whole silver phenomenon is that makers of aluminum flake [one of the ingredients that gives paint that metallic look] have been able to create an aluminum flake that's much cleaner and brighter looking," says Eggly.

"They can create very fine silky silvers or that course chunky heavy metallic look -- and everything in between," he adds. "It's given many variations for silver."

In a luxury model, "it's a fine grain silver that looks like satin," says Will. "In a sportier model, it's a [bigger] flake."

Even with bright colors, buyers are taking a new look at metallics. "Solid reds have been dissipating for the last five years," says Dickey. "People are not buying it -- they're buying more metallic reds."

And to the younger drivers, "metallic looks more expensive," she says.

Several companies are also using three coats, rather than the more traditional two, to add extra richness to metallic whites and reds. The process produces "a dimensional and dramatic effect," says Eggly. "With tri-coat whites, the highlights are almost silver. It looks so rich and luxurious."

Inside out
When it comes to the interior of the car, expect fewer colors and more textures. Automakers are playing up the neutral colors such as gray, charcoal and beige. But to give it a new look, they are adding a wide variety of materials.

"We're seeing a continued trend of neutral atmospheres on the interior," says Eggly.

When it comes to color to match or coordinate to the outside, look for small shots of color in the accents, rather than the main background hues.

Another hot trend -- one color but many different textures.

"The Volkswagen Beetle did something really nice for us and came out with interesting textured vinyls in different scales of grains," says Dickey. "That led a lot of designers to realize we could do a lot more things on the inside of our vehicles."

If the outside has a stylish industrial edge, the focus on the inside seems to be just the opposite. Designers want something that appears soft, touchable and luxurious.

"As an industry, we're paying more attention to finishes," says Will. And the focus, he adds, "is tactile."

Time travel
Automakers are already planning the new exterior colors for 2007 and 2008. So where is color going?

Expect the world to get a lot more gray. "Gray is gaining momentum," says Jennifer Cortez, spokeswoman for Audi of America. "It's almost as popular as silver."

Webb agrees.

"It's a continuation of the silver and gray family," he says. "It's not going to decline.

Just as with silver, look for new shades that veer toward blue, green or even tan, says Dickey.

Several automakers predict that blue will continue to build momentum. And look for more tri-coat colors that, thanks to their multiple layers, can offer a "shift" or "travel" as the color appears to change slightly.

The color of money
What about a correlation between popular car colors and the economy?

"Anytime the economy is uncertain, everything goes neutral," says Weldon Munsey, vehicle lines manager, Mazda North American Operations. "When there's an upswing, you see better, more vibrant colors."

Back when leasing was big in the '90s, Dickey, who was working with the Lexus line, was getting requests for "new colors every year."

"They would lease for two or three years, and then want something different," she says. "That's not happening anymore. And buyers take a more practical approach when they buy."

Now drivers seem to be focusing on colors that will stand the test of time.

"When people are buying a car, they're saying, 'What kind of color can I live with for the next seven to eight years?'" she says. "'And what's my resale value like if I sell it in five?' That kind of thinking is happening whether the economy's good or whether it's not."

In spite of a tight economy, though, some automakers are seeing more of a demand for personalization in their cars, right down to the color. Buyers are "putting extra expense into things to make them unique," says Webb. "We have found no concern with that -- incredibly expensive interiors, costly pigments."

One example: Manufacturers are trying out paints that look different depending on the light level or angle. One pigment varies from red to blue, says Webb. "As you walk around the car or pass it on the freeway, it would visually change color -- almost like a mood ring."

But at $350 per gallon, these paints are five-to-eight times the cost of regular paint, Webb says. Still, automakers view it as a solid option for limited edition cars.

A different type of specialty paint with a much more subtle gray-to-purple hue tagged "Ultra Violet" was used on 99 limited-edition Neiman Marcus Cadillac XLR convertibles offered through the retailer's catalogue in mid-October. They sold out in 15 minutes.

Dana Dratch is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.

-- Posted: Dec. 9, 2003

2004 Car Guide
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