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The colorful world of automotive paint

A car finish primer for buying, maintaining, repairing, and reselling your car

Published: October 25, 2013 03:15 PM

Of all the car-buying decisions that you’ll make, selecting a color may not be the most involved, but there are implications. A vehicle’s color and finish influence the initial purchase price, maintenance, repair, and resale—all greater concerns today, given that Americans are retaining their rides longer than ever (more than 10 years, on average).

The stakes are high for automakers to offer compelling hues. “Thirty to 40 percent of potential buyers will walk away from a car purchase if their first color choice is not offered for that model," said Paul Czornij, technical manager in the color excellence group of the auto-finish manufacturer BASF.

Behind the rainbow: How colors are developed and tested

Auto panels exposed to the elements in Florida.
Photo: Q-Lab Corporation

About seven years of color research and testing go into making a car color and finish showroom ready. New hues are designed to last for at least 10 years, according to Jane Harrington-Durst, manager of color styling for the auto-paint manufacturer PPG. To ensure that a finish will retain its appearance for at least a decade, it is put to the test against natural and man-made abuse.

Before a paint premieres on the showroom floor, it goes to the farm—a panel farm, that is—where it endures South Florida’s heat, humidity, and sun for up to five years to prove that it’s got the staying power to coat your car. The farm is the “New York, New York” of the auto world—if the paint can make it there, it’ll make it anywhere. Paint samples are also put through their paces in a "gravelometer," where they are pelted with gravel and evaluated for durability.

(In talking with paint companies, there is the clear message that paint science is constantly improving, yet there continue to be reports of clear coat and paint finishes bubbling and peeling a few years after purchase on some vehicles. We're looking into finish failure for a future article.)

Pigment-purchasing primer

An example of the orange-peel paint defect.

Although the automakers, and their suppliers, put much effort into ensuring a top-notch finish on new cars, the quality on individual cars can vary. To check the quality of a finish, follow these expert tips.

  • Think apple—not orange—to avoid a lemon of a finish. Czornij advises that you want the car surface to look smooth like an apple’s surface, not textured and mottled like an orange peel. The orange peel effect happens during the paint application if droplets prematurely dry and harden.  
  • Look at the hood of the car, not just under it. The hood is the easiest part of the car to paint, so if the paint isn’t smooth and even there, it’s a sign that the car doesn’t have the best paint job. Or was repaired.
  • Check car doors (including door jams). Vertical surfaces are harder to paint. Make sure you don’t see paint drips on the side of the car.
Look for paint drips, especially on car doors and other vertical surfaces.
  • Inspect the paint finish on bumpers and mirrors. These pieces are generally made of plastic, and the paint may not adhere as well in these areas.
  • Say "metamerism" 10 times fast. That’s the tongue-twisting term for a car color appearing to change under different lighting conditions. Two Subaru design and color gurus, Peter Tenn and Michael Gobin, say that it’s important to get that car out from under the showroom to see what it looks like in natural light.
  • Ask the paint/finish price. Car colors can cost from a few hundred to thousands of dollars extra. Red (and also colors that require a good portion of red, like brown) tends to be a more expensive color and even though pearlescent and metallic finishes are common, check the window sticker, as there might be an extra charge for these three-layered coatings (as opposed to traditional two layers). Trendy matte will set you back, and the places after the dollar sign for the multicolored chromaflair coating rival the number of colors in the rainbow. (Chromaflair on the Land Rover Range Rover Autobiography costs $14,500.)
  • Tint can also cost a mint (or at least a few hundred extra). Tinted clear coat is time intensive at the factory, according to Czornij, requiring careful cleaning of the spraying equipment.

For more information from Consumer Reports on the cost of car finishes, read “Beware Car Colors That Cost Extra.”

High maintenance

If a paint color/finish is more expensive to buy, chances are it’s more expensive to maintain and repair.

The diva award in this category goes to the matte finish. Consider the dos and don’ts in the Hyundai Veloster Turbo matte finish paint owner’s guide paraphrased below:

  • Don’t use wax or any products made for normal paint.
  • Don’t put the car through a commercial car wash.
  • Do hand wash with a soft wash mitt and mild cleaning product safe for matte paint.
  • Do use a fan-tipped hose and hold it at least 10 inches away from the paint.
  • Do use microfiber cleaning cloths with alcohol-based window cleaner for basic surface clean-up.
  • Do avoid circular motions that can leave swirls in the finish.
  • Do note that maintaining the matte appearance is solely the responsibility of the vehicle owner.

Matte is also an expensive finish to doctor if it gets dinged. Even a small repair area might require fixing an entire car panel, according to Tony Passwater, an Indianapolis-based auto finish repair expert and president of AEII (an international consulting, training, and systems development organization specializing in the collision repair industry).

Passwater also confirms that pearlescent and metallic finishes are generally more expensive to repair due to material costs and the previously-mentioned multilayered aspect of these sparkly surfaces. And red can also get you into the red since more pigments are required to make this color.

Keeping it clean

With all this talk of high maintenance, is there a low-maintenance color that hides dirt well? Matt DeWolf, spokesman for the International Carwash Association, says that the midtone pewter and silver-colored vehicles are the best grime-hiding hues. Black is the worse at dirt display, mirroring the muck, and high-contrast white also does a bad job of showing it off. So going gray or silver is the way to go. (Use our car-washing tips.)

Reselling your ride

Neutral colors are usually best for resale, according to Czornij of BASF.  Last year, 74 percent of the cars built for the U.S. market were white, black, silver, or gray, says Nancy Lockhart, color marketing manager at Axalta Coating Systems, and a record number of cars were white. The auto industry refers to these colors as the neutrals, and their numbers have increased in the United States in recent years. Lockhart says that the neutral shades are the go-to car colors in harder economic times, following the hemline index. If cars were skirts, they’d mostly be white and below the knee right now.

And then there's red. Red is the fifth most popular car color in the United States and Canada, a bright spot at the end of the subdued neutral rainbow. Last year, 10 percent of the cars built in North America were red, trailing gray by five percent. If a car color is associated strongly with a car, like the little red Corvette that Prince sings about, that will work for resale. But trendy colors can look outdated a decade later.

Geography and the car model are also facets of the resale prism. Bob Graham, vice president of Vehicle Remarketing for Automotive Resources International, a fleet management company, says that a car color’s resale value also depends on these elements. "It’s not likely that either a subcompact buyer or a buyer in Florida or Nevada would choose black," Graham said. "If you think of a sports car, a subcompact, a luxury sedan and a pickup truck buyer, it’s unlikely they would ever think of their color choices in the same way."

The take away is that white, black, silver, and gray are strong for the used car market, but also consider what car colors are popular for your type of car and for where you live. Go wild with the color, and it may be harder to find a buyer, especially if the car color is as trendy as orange, which was a hot color at the car shows this year. At resale, it may scream "so 2013."  

Tint trends

Despite the popular neutral tones, we are not destined for ho-hum hues on the highways. There’s still a palette of pigments on the pavement. Smaller cars, such as the Chevrolet Spark and Mini Cooper, offer color varieties rivaling nail polish selections. And color analysts say that it’s going to get easier to be green. Harrington-Durst of PPG forecasts that more “natural” greens will be on the road in the next few years. Czornij of BASF seconds that trend, associating it with the emergence of environmental awareness. Harrinton-Durst and Lockhart of Axalta also say that rich browns are trending up.

Bottom line. Just as safety, price, and fuel economy are chief components of the vehicle selection process, hue should not be eschewed as a frivolous factor. Color is an important part of the car buying, owning, and selling scenarios. The right color can be satisfying to look at and easy to maintain.

Sharon Riley

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