The colorful world of automotive paint
The colorful world of automotive paint
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.
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.)
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.
- 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.)