Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Car Color Revolution

By Michael Shields, European Auto Correspondent

Small and sporty cars in look-at-me hues are leading a gradual color revolution in the automotive world that is eroding classic silver's years of dominance, albeit at a glacial pace.

Watch for more orange, brown, gold, and yellow cars on streets near you soon as 1970s-style earth tones make a comeback and fuel-sipping cars thrive, automotive industry experts say.

Still, neutral colors remain the first stop for risk-averse buyers worried about resale value, and the rainbow will always fade when it comes to pricey rides.

"The more expensive the car and the higher the value, the less colorful it is," said Sandra Krueger, an auto colors specialist in Germany for U.S.-based chemicals company DuPont.

"There are exceptions such as Ferrari that is classically red, but you are not going to see expensive cars that are orange or bright green," she said. "Taste in autos is very conservative."

DuPont's 2005 survey of car colors shows silver remained customers' favorite -- accounting for 30 percent of vehicles in Asia, 29 percent in Europe, 25 percent in South America and 18 percent in North America -- although grey and black gained.

Corporate fleets that buy millions of autos each year for use as company cars or rentals prefer neutral colors because they retain value better. Even retail buyers don't want to be stuck with a car they can't sell at a good price.

That means the color action is mainly to be found among smaller and sportier cars that strive to be cute and peppy. They tend to be second cars driven by women and young people.


"We see silver crossing over to new color spaces using tints in cool blue and green or warm, light brown metallic effects. Even grey will take on more hues in red, blue and purple," according to DuPont's forecasts for colors through 2009.

Light, medium and dark blues were becoming more popular across vehicle segments, while warmer reds will cross with orange to create new color trends.

"And while deep brown has been periodically picked as a luxury fashion color, new color highlights and grayed-off effects may finally push the color's attractiveness for more vehicle models," it added.

Bright yellow and orange are also gaining acceptance, which means colors are getting bolder just as smaller, fuel-efficient cars are in the ascendancy given high fuel prices.

New effects that make the color of cars seem to change depending on how light hits them are also the rage.

The new Mercedes-Benz E-Class executive car features 13 colors, of which nine are metallic and two have special effects, a Mercedes spokesman said. Its Indium Grey, for instance, seems to shift color as the light changes.


Car companies put a lot of work into picking colors.

"The most difficult thing is making the tick on the order form for the color," said Gert Hildebrand, chief designer at BMW's British small car brand Mini.

"A lot of the purchasing decision is made on color. Even I put the most thought into the colors. For the rest, you just pick the best -- the biggest engine, the biggest wheels."

Mini offers 12 basic colors including Astro Black, Pepper White, Chili Red and British Racing Green, plus special colors Hot Orange and Cool Blue for its convertibles.

Self-confident buyers of its Cooper S version often opt for contrasting colors for the roof, and more than a few of the brash minicars sport a British Union Jack flag on the roof.

Developing a new color takes more than two years. Mini works with suppliers to come up with hues, then tests them in the desert while trying to persuade marketing and production colleagues and top management to back them.

"We have to make 10 proposals to the board before we get one color through. It is not just picking a color and painting it," Hildebrand said. "We paint 20 cars and they pick two."

Predicting the hot colors of two years hence is also no mean feat.

"That is the magic of design," he said. "It is a visionary job we do. There is also a lot of dictatorship involved. We make the colors that people have to buy because these are the colors we have designed. We set the trend."

Car designers also have to take into consideration the aesthetics of colors. Black reflects a car's surroundings, while silver flatters the form and white diminishes surfaces.

"If you paint a car white, the car itself -- from the design standpoint, from the sculpture -- must be perfect. If you paint a horrible, ugly car white it is even worse," Hildebrand said.

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