American Coatings Association


Industry News, Science and Technology, and Market Insight

Automotive Color Trends: Globalization, Customization, Saturation

Color often plays a significant role in the selection of a new car, and is typically a very personal choice. Consumers want colors that catch the eye and create excitement, contributing to pride in ownership. A changing customer base, globalization of the automotive marketplace, and expectations for greater functionality and performance are all influencing color development for automotive coatings. The future is exciting as well, with growing interest in customization and advanced automotive technologies creating the need for novel color solutions.


Globalization of the automotive market has altered color preferences and created the need for advanced color matching capabilities. “Top colors were once more regionally divided, whereas today the top four colors (white, black, silver, and gray) are preferred in all regions,” observes Nancy Lockhart, color marketing manager with Axalta Coating Systems. She adds that regional differences still exist, but on a smaller scale.  In addition, vehicle brands are more available in multiple regions―particularly with the expansion of vehicle brands into the Chinese market.  As a result, global colors or same-type color can be used across multiple regions, and the ability to match colors in any technology and in any region is essential. “While chemistry and technologies may differ slightly around the globe, color must stay consistent.  Even though each region has its own environmental regulations, formulations must offer the same quality, durability, and color,” Lockhart explains.

Changing Customer Base

Understanding the needs of car makers and the consumers who are buying vehicles is also imperative given the changing nature of the customer base. “The marketplace is changing,” asserts Lockhart. “Baby boomers are enjoying their vehicles and the fact that the market has focused on what they want to purchase, while millennials have now quickly permeated the consumer world with their needs for the interiors and exteriors of vehicles.  Focusing on what colors are important to our OEM customers also means focusing on the automotive market and what their customers want to buy,” she says. In particular, automotive buyers of the future may change the automotive color landscape. “ New color choices are starting to appear as pastel versions and bright chromatic hues make their way back into the market, especially on compact cars and specialty models, with millennials having a strong impact on the future automotive market,” she comments.

Greater Color Saturation

There is a continual demand for greater color saturation combined with a higher degree of sophistication and effects and the incorporation of other “functional” aspects of pigments into automotive coatings, according to Paul Czornij, head of design, BASF Color Excellence Group of BASF Coatings, North America. “These trends are being driven by a concerted demand for additional benefits in color harmony, as well greater expectations on the part of automakers for improved appearance and sustainability, coupled with increased regulatory, industry, and consumer interest. In addition, lower toxicity, chemical registrations, reduced carbon footprints, lightweighting, and the drive to e-mobility have all played a strong role in shaping the way colors evolve, are applied, and measured,” he notes.

Expanding the color palette for innovative design is a key aspect of color development today, according to Czornij. Much of the development continues to focus on effect “flaked” pigments that use improved manufacturing processes or new substrates to push into newer and more exciting effects. “Both highly visible and more subtle color positions are being sought to drive into these spaces,” he notes.

Axalta’s Vermeera™ high chroma color technology, for instance, uses high energy grind dispersion technology and dispersant technology to produce more chromatic colors, according to Lockhart. She adds that Axalta’s Automotive Colors of the Year (COTY) for 2015 and 2016 were both high chroma colors: Radiant Red and Brilliant Blue, respectively. The company recently released its 2017 Automotive Color of the Year at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit―Gallant Gray. According to Axalta, the “luxurious color is enhanced by blue and silver flakes that produce a unique sparkle effect and dark undertones that enrich the finish, adding sophistication.”

Digital Benefits

The continued use of digital tools to model and render colors has the dual effect of bringing the new colors faster into the market as well as predicting any challenges in color harmony, according to Czornij. “Digital color rendering is a powerful tool that can help in the visualization of color design on a specific automotive body style in order to ensure the right color is feasible in production, as well as accelerating the development time and reducing the possibility of production delays,” Lockhart agrees. Axalta brings its digital technology to color shows to make the company’s color repertoire more accessible to manufacturers. Touch screen displays enable users to choose a vehicle, color, and setting, and then rotate the image with 3-D realism. “The effect is dazzling and the feedback immediate; customers can see their imagination come to life on screen with the touch of a finger,” observes Lockhart.

Tracking Color Trends

Understanding color trends is essential for developing new automotive colors. Axalta has been following color trends for 64 years, and also tracks how color has changed throughout time. “Mapping color helps us see where color has been achieved and where we would like to go outside of the current gamut,” Lockhart asserts. Axalta’s annual Global Color Popularity report includes global automotive color popularity rankings and regional trends from 11 leading automotive regions of the world and reveals the top 10 most popular color spaces. Lockhart notes that the insight into what the latest color trends are in the automotive market is not just for those involved in the industry.  “The report is also used by consumers around the globe to generate interest around automotive color.  When buyers have information that the color they have selected is supported by industry experts, it increases their confidence, making their purchases more enjoyable,” she says.

On the other hand, the need to ensure that the color trends currently in play in other market segments will continue to appeal to consumers four to five years later―the typical length of time to bring new colors into play―can present a challenge, according to Czornij. “It’s also about understanding the importance of color for our customers, because it relates closely to how well a particular automobile will prosper in the market. Knowing branding, the synergy between color and shape, and the psychological impact color has are just some tools used to develop them. It is therefore critical to know where the emerging colorant technologies are and how they fit in to both the aesthetic appeal and technical performance criteria,” he adds.

Maintaining Quality

An additional challenge for automotive coating manufacturers is the need to push for color innovation and excellence without compromising quality or any engineering protocols. “Both new color spaces and the individual raw materials and intermediates used to create them go through a rigorous testing scheme to ensure their service life,” Czornij explains. He adds that BASF pays close attention to ensuring good technical performance and understanding all the aspects of bringing these products into the market.

Exciting Future

Customization will be an important trend in the future, according to Lockhart, with brands that can custom order colors attracting luxury buyers. “New developments are needed to enable the rapid production of custom color finishes.  Color developments will also need to be changed out quickly.  A color that runs too long may start to bore the consumer.  Paint shops that can turn over colors within a season or even a year will have greater consumer interest,” she adds. Axalta is also seeing an increasing number of requests for two-tone vehicles and small parts that are painted with accent colors or matte finishes.

The future of color development will, in fact, occur in multiple directions, according to Czornij. Of course, the beautification and protection imparted by coatings will remain important, but he notes that the role of color in defining new transportation trends is starting to be identified. “Self-driving cars, the use of new materials for both exteriors and interiors, and the desire for increased functionality of color will challenge the industry. Additionally, how sustainability and bio-based products can make a difference in performance and marketing are being investigated. The tools used in production to measure color effects and ensure consistency of colors and customer satisfaction will also evolve. Stay tuned; it’s very exciting,” Czornij asserts.