Believe it or not, most luxury cars are not McLaren orange, or even Ferrari red.
They’re “arctic,” or “diamond,” or “fog.” In short: White. Silver. Grey. The feeling, experts say, is that those hues are considered timeless. People like them because they seem sophisticated and elegant. At the very least, they’re inoffensive.
“The manufacturers have learned which colors are most appropriate for their vehicles,” says Eric Ibara, the director of residual value consulting at Kelley Blue Book. “If you stick with the traditional whites and silvers and blacks, then you really can’t go wrong.”
Boring, maybe. But according to Kelley Blue Book, silver remains the color of choice for luxury vehicles. A full third of all luxury vehicles are silver; another 30 percent of them are diamond, crystal, snow, powder, cream, or some other version of white.
And no matter how much you love the dark side, if you drive a noir Aston or a Bimmer, you’ll be in the minority. Even though it is a popular hue for cars in general, only 8.5 percent of all luxury cars sold last year were black.
The color of your car indicates a lot about what feelings you consider important and how you perceive yourself. Trends in car colors operate on a much longer time frame than they do for clothing—they'll flip every six or eight years as opposed to every season—but they involve just as much emotion and personalization for those who choose them as any Dior gown.
“It’s about buying something that makes a statement about your personality,” Cathy Bass, a senior designer for Bentley, says. “When you’re buying a new car, it’s critical.”
“Color induces memory, and it affects your mood—especially when it’s connected to how you express your personality,” says Erin Crossley, the color and trim design manager for Cadillac.
The rules of tone as it relates to personality are common sense: Big, bold colors such as red and yellow are associated most often with sporty, young people and aggressive drivers, Crossley says. Dramatic colors, such as green and teal, connote a “performance aesthetic.” Neutral and faint colors are considered calm and luxurious.
“People equate light colors with soft things,” Crossley says. “If you’re an adrenalin fiend, you’re going to choose red.”
How People Choose
Bass, who has worked as a color expert for 27 years and currently leads Bentley’s program, called selecting a car's color a matter of instinct that is especially delicate when the person spending the money is part of a duo.
“The female companions in particular play an important role in the selection of both the interior and exterior of the car,” Bass says. “A lot of the gentlemen say they’re interested in the engine and the performance, and, ‘I let my wife pick the color.’”
But there’s more about the color of a car than just telling the world you’re a cool kid or a fast driver. Color also affects value.
According to a Kelley Blue Book study, if you are trying to sell a car that is painted or lined in an unpopular shade of, say, brown, it will decrease the residual value of your car by hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
“Put simply, today's popular color will probably make your vehicle more popular to a buyer five years from now,” it says. “Less popular colors depreciate your vehicle's value.”
KBB's Ibara says he doesn’t see the tendency toward white changing soon. White communicates timelessness and freshness, which are positive values. If you drive a white car, you’re likely channeling those values, he says.
Teal, on the other hand, was trendy for drivers in the 1990s who wanted to feel quirky or different from the norm. These days Kona and Cinnamon are especially popular (i.e. dark brown and reddish-brown).
“They are colors that have that perfect balance of being expressive and also feeling reminiscent of the leather good products,” Crossley says. “It makes it feel much like a home environment inside the car—expressive without being too over top.”
So are tones that evoke nostalgia. Sherwin Williams reports that for 2016, “multifamily living is back, and this palette connects across generations: dashing greens and cheeky pinks with a flower power that’s as crisply modern as it is soulfully vintage.”
The tones are reflected in cars.
“Kodachrome or something with a lot of shadow around the edges and black in it [is] very popular with people who are looking at the Bentayga now,” says Bentley’s Bass. “You can see those same elements in fashion magazines like GQ and Vogue, too, which obviously you can’t do on a flat surface, but you can recreate elements of that to give the car much more depth.”
Bass scours fashion shows, furniture fairs, magazines, design events, and textile sales looking for hues that reflect what Bentley buyers want. Or more accurately, what they will want, since she works on products that won’t see the marketplace for three or four years after their inception. Economic downturns lead to muted, grayer colors, according to the Sherwin Williams report. Upswing years translate to brighter, bolder hues.
The key to producing a winning color on any level is to land on something that makes people feel at home inside the vehicle. It must complement other colors already and currently in the consumer consciousness, whether they’re on refrigerators, couches, or bathroom mats.
“Colors look dated when people can’t relate to them with the other products and things in their lives,” Crossley says.
Prime Real Estate
Location also determines which colors are popular on a given car. In the U.S., darker tones are always more popular in northern states than they are in the south, where light, pale colors sell better, Crossley says.
On a global scale, Bentley sells its craziest color combinations (think mint green with cotton-white interior, Hermès orange with ebony wood trim, electric blue with red stitching) in the Middle East, where the blazing sunlight somehow filters differently than it does in dreary England. A vermillion Continental would look terrible in Crewe—but right at home in Dubai.
The shape of the car matters, too. A yellow minivan has an entirely different vibe than a yellow Miata.
“It’s one thing to love a color and another to know is it right for your car,” says Bass. She should know—Bentley will offer 17 standard exterior options on the new Bentayga, plus 90 color options in its extended range. That doesn’t even include its bespoke and archival color services, which cost a fortune but represent the ultimate way to realize your color fantasy in the body of a car. “You might be emotionally drawn to a brilliant color because you like frogs, but that doesn’t mean you should be driving one.”
Unless it’s a silver frog, of course.