Chevrolet HHR
The deep violet-blue color of this Chevrolet HHR is expected to be ‘especially hot’ in coming years. 
updated 5/24/2007 2:33:42 PM ET 2007-05-24T18:33:42

The color of your next car may come from the makeup counter. Bolder colors and glitzy paint finishes are on the rise in the auto market and promise to offset staid shades of black, gray, silver and white that persistently dominate the roads.

Color trends that affect every conceivable consumable — cars, purses, shoes, cell phones, lamps, linens, wallpaper — can often be traced back to only a handful of hue gurus. Li Edelkoort is one of them. Her ability to accurately predict color trends has given her cult status in the fashion and design industries. She runs the Trend Union, which provides color forecasting guides two years in advance of the seasons that cosmetic, fashion, interior and product designers work toward.

Edelkoort’s reports are bold juxtapositions, and the connection between her inspiration and a future trend often seem esoteric. In one of her current publications, for instance, a close-cropped photo of an eye with mascara-loaded lashes points to the auto world: an idea of outlined features and more outspoken trims, shown as an off-white car interior with heavily contrasting stitching.

One Trend Union report, the new twice-yearly Colour Tool, includes a section specific to the automotive world. “The idea is to show designers in all fields how different industries use color in inspiring ways,” says Edelkoort, who has worked with Citroen, Jaguar, Nissan, Renault and Volkswagen, although not only on color.

Another of the elite few color experts is Chris Webb, who heads color development at General Motors’ 11 design studios globally. “In selling cars, color has never been more important,” he says. In fact, 39 percent of consumers will go to another brand if the color they want isn’t available. A decade ago, that figure stood at 27 percent.

The life of a hot new fashion color may be a matter of months in some cases, but car colors can last for years. High development costs, which Webb puts at roughly $250,000 per color, and rigorous testing, often lasting more than two years, create immense pressure for color studios to get the right colors on the right products.

The auto world’s color experts formulate new hues and hunt for trends years in advance; they draw inspiration from streetwear fashion to cell phones. GM’s studios have already formulated exterior colors for the 2009 model year and are currently putting the finishing touches on 2010. DuPont, one of the leading providers of automotive finishes, is currently hashing out its 2011 colors.

The most popular color currently on the market is silver, which appears in some variation on at least one-fifth of all cars worldwide, according to DuPont. Silver’s popularity is stabilizing and more subtle grays are emerging in its place, says Karen Surcina, a DuPont color marketing and technology manager. “We see a lot of differentiation in silver at this point,” she says. Showier silver variants are also starting to appear, such as Alubeam, a high-tech, lustrous finish which recently made its debut on the 2007 Mercedes-Benz CL65 AMG 40th Anniversary edition. The metallic finish has a higher luster than a traditional silver finish because the paint pigment particles are much smaller. Though Alubeam is currently only available on this top-tier Mercedes, a similar finish may appear on the mass market in several years. “We’re looking into liquid-metal-like chromes as an alternative to silver,” Surcina says.

Greens are beginning to reappear after a downturn early in the decade, says GM’s Webb. “I believe this is partly due to the dominance of the leafy, midtone greens in the late '80s and early '90s, which left our customers with a dated image of that color family.” Webb says green will be widely available again on 2009 and 2010 models, and the hunter and forest greens popular in the '90s will be replaced with showier variants. GM has already unveiled a Savannah Green Metallic for its Saturn Vue and Ion, as well as Emerald Jewel Metallic, a modern-day version of classic British racing green, which will be seen on the Pontiac G6 and Solstice and Saturn Sky.

Blue has been a dominant color family in the 2000s, Webb says, and will continue to infiltrate other families — adding tints to silvers and grays, and enriching reds. While glitzy show cars may arrive in shimmering purple, they are not generally what the public wants, Webb says. “Trend colors will never penetrate the market, but they get you press coverage and magazine covers,” he says.

A blazing orange Chevrolet Camaro convertible concept was arguably the star of the 2007 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. The 22-inch wheels and drop-top profile aside, much of this car’s mass appeal was due to its eyeball-grabbing orange color.

“I can’t claim the attention was all about the color. But the ‘Hugger Orange Tricoat’ played a big role in the Camaro convertible’s success,” says GM’s Webb, who helped develop the hue. “It’s a high-impact trend color based on a historical Camaro paint job [which first appeared in 1969]. Both the general consumer and the Camaro enthusiast totally ‘got it,’” he says.

Occasionally, what designers see as a “trend” color breaks into the mass market, as in the case of orange. Originally seen as a niche color, GM now offers it on three-quarters of its models. “Orange will be moving much more into a copper space in the future,” says DuPont's Surcina. “It’s a niche, and has been a “notice me” color.”

Technical developments and new techniques can also lead to new colors, as in the case of Xirallic, a man-made crystal that adds the appearance of movement and dimension, and can be especially useful in breathing new life into a classic or basic color, such as white or gray. Webb says that Xirallic will be used in nearly 50 percent of GM’s North American colors in coming years.

The Trend Union’s Edelkoort predicts the emergence of gold in the automotive universe. “A few years ago, we started to see gold as more of a color and less as a metal. We saw it taking over many domains — most notably, of course, the cosmetic industry,” she says. It made its way into everything from chocolate to running shoes. “It’s like gold came down from its pedestal.” But that doesn’t make it timid, she says. “It’s a little more exclusive, and you need to have more guts to have a gold car. But it’s becoming a very important second color after silver,” Edelkoort says.

Besides gold, she sees more metallic colors on the rise, including brass, bronze and tin. “I’m predicting a wave of patinated bronze colors will emerge — the greens, the darker tones.”

She also looks for brown to get big. Deep browns are already appearing in car interiors, such as on various BMW models and the Saturn Aura’s Morocco Brown offering. But metallic brown exterior finishes will emerge as well. “Brown is still a suspect color in the luxury market. But it’s very chic to have a dark brown car,” says Edelkoort. She points to a rich brown that Nissan is currently offering on its Japan-only Cube subcompact. “It’s small, square and brown — like a piece of chocolate,” she says.

Edelkoort agrees that there will be a return to the gray car. “We are tired of black and white, in symbolic terms especially. Gray represents a need for osmosis and dialogue, a middle of the road mentality, which we haven’t addressed for the last 15 years. I think it’s very interesting and avant-garde to be like a mouse,” she says.

© 2007


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