Paint pro gives high marks to automakers' Detroit palettes

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The “beautiful dark, rich green” of the Mercedes G class. Photo credit: JACK WALSWORTH

DETROIT — Walking through the entrance of the Detroit auto show this week revealed not just an assortment of cars and trucks, but also an array of vibrant colors — some of them as cutting-edge as the show’s technology.

The various shades and finishes were not lost on Jane Harrington, PPG Industries’ manager of color styling for automotive original equipment manufacturer coatings.

“The show had a lot more color,” she said of the vehicles on display this year.

In addition to supplying paint coatings to automakers, PPG also monitors automotive color trends and tracks color data.

Harrington said blue is the fastest-growing color for vehicles globally. She said Audi and BMW had some standout blue shades on display, while Ford, Volkswagen and Subaru also prominently displayed various blue applications.

“You’re starting to see a slightly greener shade, where it might be more of a tourmaline,” she said. “But you’re also seeing red-shaded blues and green- shaded blues.”

Neutral colors, which Harrington defined as white, black, silver and gray, came in a variety of looks.

“The white on the Infiniti Q Inspiration is beautiful and has a very fine flake,” Harrington said. “It’s almost a silvery white. It really looks unique.”

Harrington pays close attention to the choices automakers go with for concept vehicles and production unveilings to see the direction of future production colors.

“I like to see what gets put on concept vehicles and what’s on the reveals, because that’s a good indication of what colors are going to start becoming more popular,” she said.

Automakers typically select colors two to three years prior to actually putting them into production.

“It’s almost like a piece of fine art,” she said of concept cars. “It’s usually a multilayer process done by an expert painter. To translate that into production color would be our job, to develop something as close as possible in a standard production application.”

Harrington took notes as she walked the show floor, observing that green appears to be making a comeback.

“Not since the late 1990s has green been popular. The Mustang Bullitt has a new green on it, Highland Green, and the Mercedes G class had a beautiful dark, rich green. It was very lush, very sporty looking.”

The Lexus LF-1’s “very elegant” gold Photo credit: LAURENCE ILIFF

Much like the vehicles themselves, colors change.

“I thought it was interesting how brown is evolving into these copper colors,” Harrington said. “The Lexus LF-1 concept had a beautiful color between rose gold and copper color that was just very elegant.”

Red has become more vibrant.

“Red continues to evolve,” she said. “A great example of a red that almost glows is the Acura RDX.”

A vehicle’s color will be a key consideration with more advanced technologies, such as lidar and vehicle-to-vehicle communication, Harrington said.

“With white and light-valued colors, there’s no problem with reflectivity,” she said. “But some of the darker colors absorb the lidar instead of transmitting it. We’re looking at ways to examine how we can develop darker colors that will also be reflective so that lidar can detect it.”

PPG also has an aerospace division and Harrington said that business is helping the automotive coatings unit develop a solution for darker vehicle colors and lidar. The aerospace arm developed a darker exterior coating for airplanes that protects the body from heat, reflecting it instead of absorbing it, Harrington said.

“We’re using that same type of knowledge to understand this issue with dark-valued colors,” she said.

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