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Hot Car Colors: Sneaky Go-Fast Gray, Hey-Look-at-Me Red

May 24, 2000|JEANNE WRIGHT

Buying a car or truck is a lot like getting married.

"You want to tell yourself you're buying that car for all the practical reasons--it's got good brakes, good handling," says Jack Keebler, Detroit editor of Motor Trend magazine.

But as much as you tell yourself it's what's under the hood that matters most, you can't underestimate the power of looks when it comes to choosing what you drive.

"Color is part of the romance," Keebler says.

Indeed, it has been nearly a century since Henry Ford said, "Any customer can have a car painted any color he wants, so long as it is black." In 1908, his pioneering Model T cost $850--and came only in basic black.

Through the ensuing decades, of course, we have seen the emergence of car colors such as brilliant turquoises (think Chevy Bel Air in the 1950s) and dazzling silvers and pearly whites, and more recently, color-shift paints, which use so-called optically variable pigments to change hue with varying angles of viewing.

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Silver, reflecting a high-tech, Space Age look, ranks as the most popular color among 2000 model new cars and trucks, as determined by a market analysis by J.D. Power & Associates. White has slipped to second place, and black comes in third, according to Agoura Hills-based Power.

Image is paramount for many motorists, and color has become a key element in auto makers' quest to create signature vehicles with special customer appeal, says Rex Parker, vice president and senior consultant at AutoPacific Inc., an automotive consulting firm in Tustin.

According to this line of thinking, the color vehicle you drive projects an image of who you are--or who you want people to think you are. The way vehicles are marketed these days, you may feel as if you are buying a new lifestyle, not just a car or truck.

Drive a school-bus yellow Nissan Xterra sport-utility vehicle and you'll project the image of an adventurous, life-on-the-edge kind of guy or gal, says Sheldon Payne, general manager of color and market design at Nissan Design International.

Owning one of these trucks, he says, sends a message: "Hey, look at me. I'm active. I'm not shy."

People who drive Xterras "live life on the edge when they can," Payne says, echoing the marketing theme Nissan and its advertising agency have crafted for the SUV, which has been a strong seller since its introduction a year ago. "They have mountain bikes and they roller-blade. They are hikers and backpackers."

You want a car for speed? Then gray is your color, Motor Trend's Keebler says. A gray Dodge Viper is a great car to drive fast, he suggests, because the color will not attract attention, even when gracing such a distinctively muscled sports car. If you don't want to catch the eye of a traffic officer, stay away from yellow or red. Speed along in those colors, Keebler says, and "you might as well paint a bull's-eye on your car."

On the other hand, if you want to appear dignified behind the wheel, black is the way to go.

"Black cars reflect quintessential elegance," Parker says. But if you are not the flashy type, sliding behind the wheel of a champagne-beige sedan will reveal a penchant for subtlety.

What about black and gray?

Cruise in an Audi TT coupe with its dark metallic-gray exterior and jet-black interior and you'll exude sophistication and European flair, Keebler says.

Generally speaking, he says, bright and bold colors "are powerful to the manufacturers in terms of image projection."

Nissan's school-bus paint--the company calls it Solar Yellow and has also splashed it over its new Frontier Crew Cab pickup--is an example of what the industry calls "feature" colors.

Volkswagen of America has created two feature colors--Vapor Blue and Reflex Yellow--for the popular New Beetle and is offering them on 4,000 limited-edition models for sale only through the company's Web site.

By whatever name, feature colors are used in advertising to capture attention and to give the vehicle a strong identity in print--and on the road.

"But when push comes to shove, those [feature color] cars are left parked on a lot" if too many are produced, Parker says. "It will never be in really big demand. Customers will say, 'I love your car, but please, something other than yellow.' "

In Nissan's case, the popularity of yellow exceeded all expectations. The auto maker initially planned to allot 2% to 3% of production to that color. But customers craved the hue so much, Nissan executives say, that the company has reserved 7% of plant production for the yellow Xterras.

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Certainly, not everyone who drives an SUV--even a yellow one--spends weekends mountaineering. In fact, studies have consistently shown that most of these vehicles never venture far from city streets or freeways.

Nor do all vehicle owners make color a critical element of their buying decision, says Mike Greywitt, a spokesman for J.D. Power.

For many buyers, Power and others have found, issues of price, reliability, performance, size and design still outweigh color.

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