PARIS – North Americans last year joined Europeans and Japanese buyers in favoring neutral colors for their vehicles. Silver and gray have been climbing in popularity in every market, and in 2001 they were the leaders in all three major markets, says a study by PPG Industries Inc.

PPG is the world’s largest producer of coatings for the transportation industry. The group makes its forecast based on colors emerging in the fashion, home furnishing, building products and transportation sectors.

North America, its most recent study found, has the most varied color schemes. Silver/gray leads with 19% of the market, but all the other color categories – blue, green, brown, red, white and black – have between a 10% and 16% share. In Europe, 38.8% of cars are silver or gray. In Japan, grays dominate at 41% and white follows at 35%.

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Neutral colors are ascending, in part, because the times are conservative, suggests David Muyres, vice-president-design, Johnson Controls Inc., who says car designers grew more conservative in their color choices as the new millennium approached.

“What was the year 2000 really going to bring? Y2K and other spook stories tended to make people and the overall cultural outlook more conservative than wild and lively,” Muyres says.

“From a financial standpoint, you have less risk with silver/neutral cars on your sales lot than taking a chance on a series of colors that do not appeal to a broad band of consumers. Silver has a higher resale value and resale potential than a bright dominant but more narrow color.”

Reiner Muller-Korber, PPG’s Manager of Color Styling for Europe, says another force pushing silver ahead is its association with technology. “People like these technical feelings that come from silver,” he says. “The objects that express luxury, a feeling for technical focus; even high-end products like refrigerators and coffee machines often come in silver and gray.”

When Sony Corp. introduced its Aibo robot dog, “it was introduced in silver and not any natural dog color or friendly toy color,” Muyres adds. “The consumer expectations and association of silver and gray in their personal technologies is being played out in their automobiles.”

Car designers prefer neutral colors to show off a car’s form. “On the Focus and Mondeo top-level models, we think silver is the best color (to show) the proportions,” says Chris Bird, Ford’s top designer for small cars. “At Ford, we will offer more shades of silver, and we also will try to cater to the taste for diversity. The real issue for the auto industry is to find a capability of offering more choice.”

At Renault SA, “the grays are good for showing the volume of the car, the sculptural aspects,” says color expert Carole Andrieu-Favart. Renault offers 12 colors on its new Vel Satis luxury car, six of which are grays. Some are cooler, tinted toward blue, and others are warmer, tinted toward red.

“If you have a bigger car, a luxury car, it shows a more luxury feeling when you have a non-saturated color, not too bright,” says Muller-Korber. “Otherwise, it would look too cheap and normal. On an E-Class, it would be impossible to have pink.” Audi AG uses silver, in part, to remind people that its cars are built using substantial amounts of aluminum. Neutrals are common at Mercedes-Benz and BMW AG, as well.

But America is different. Elvis and Mary Kay’s best cosmetics saleswomen have proudly driven pink Cadillacs. In Big Three luxury and midsize cars last year, silvers and grays fell behind earthy browns and reds, although neutrals were tops in 2000.

Neutrals led sports cars, compact cars and SUV segments. Red and white dominated the pickup truck category. Asian carmakers in North America favored neutrals for all car categories, SUVs and vans, but red and white were the preferred for pickups.

Even automotive interiors are being affected. “New materials are creeping into the interior as accents and differentiators more and more,” says Muyres. “The simple wood strip is being replaced with carbon fiber and many variants of brushed aluminum. You will see more and more silvers and grays making their way into the interior. I see the color of technology being silver for some time to come.”

Adds Renault designer Nicki Kwee, who drives a silver car himself: “On a more practical note, silver hides dirt well.”

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