In 2017, a new Mazda MX-5 Miata RF, resplendent in Soul Red Metallic paint, listed for $35,901. By 2020 that jaunty two-seater had an average resale value of $24,112. If finished in stolid Machine Gray Metallic paint, however, that same model fetched an average of $1,046 less, thanks to the color alone.
Because many other factors influence car value, color is easy to overlook. Yet both paint and car manufacturers maintain international departments of stylists and colorists who not only monitor what consumers are buying but — drawing from the fields of art, architecture, fashion, popular culture and consumer research — predict what people will want up to five years in the future.
Decisions are exasperatingly complex. A popular color for sedans might not work for sports cars. A hit color in Florida might tank in Michigan. According to iSeeCars, a search engine catering to car buyers, the worst color for S.U.V.s was beige, which lost 46 percent of its value over three years. For pickup trucks the best color was … beige. Beige pickups lost only 18 percent in value in the same time period.
The importance of color to cars is almost singular. It’s nothing to chuck a formerly fashionable fuchsia T-shirt, and you can repaint a room in a weekend. But repainting a car costs thousands and requires skilled technicians. With the possible exception of kitchen appliances, there are few color decisions as costly that consumers live with for as long. In a routinely quoted poll from 2000, 39 percent of car buyers said color was more important than brand.
An iSeeCars analysis compared list prices for new 2017 cars with their resale prices in 2020 to see which colors hold value best in different vehicle classes. In addition, some larger paint manufacturers publish annual color popularity reports and predictions for the coming year. Combined, they help draw broad rules for picking the best values in car colors. And while color doesn’t wholly determine a car’s value, if it’s not part of a buying decision, you might get stuck with a gray Miata.
Paint is also about durability, not just aesthetics. It was intended to prevent rust. Henry Ford famously offered customers “a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.” Black paint was durable and inexpensive — and using a single color sped up production, said Matt Anderson, a curator at the Henry Ford museum in Dearborn, Mich.
“Popular myth says black was chosen because it dried fast,” he said, “but there’s no evidence that black dried any faster than dark greens or blues,” both among the colors that Ford initially offered.
By the mid-1920s, a DuPont paint formulation helped expand the palette, and color was used as a marketing device; General Motors’ Oakland Motor Car division advertised the True Blue Six model after its bright color in 1924. Even Ford Motor caved in when it needed a marketing boost in 1925.
“Colors then returned for the T’s final two model years in an effort to stimulate slumping sales,” Mr. Anderson said.
Cars came in more than a dozen hues by the mid-50s — the better to attract the female drivers of the family’s second car, the thinking went. Those colors became more vivid in the psychedelic ’60s.
Metal and paint technology upped rust resistance in the ’70s, and then a new process from Europe gained notice, said Clifford Schoff, a paint chemist who spent 30 years at the manufacturer PPG. Clear coating was about to arrive in America.
“We started hearing about the ‘wet look,’” Mr. Schoff said. “The color plus clear meant you kept a higher gloss for a longer time.”
Over the years, those technologies that improved the longevity of cars and paint may help explain the unprecedented 10-year run for white as the most popular color. Its functional advantages also help. White is good in hot climates and hides scratches and dings well, making it popular with fleet buyers.
“Rental car companies love white,” said Karl Brauer, executive analyst for iSeeCars.
But, as the iSeeCars data shows, there is a big gap between what is popular and what retains value.
The 2020 Color Report from the paint provider Axalta (formerly DuPont) said fewer than 1 percent of new cars on lots in America were yellow. Yet iSeeCars data shows yellow retained the most value over all. An overwhelming 30 percent of cars on dealers’ lots are white, followed by 19 percent for both black and gray and 10 percent for silver.
It’s the law of supply and demand. “It’s not that yellow is a popular color. It’s that yellow is popular in relation to how many people want it,” Mr. Brauer said.
“You can’t go wrong buying the popular colors — black, white or silver — but you can’t go right, either,” he added. The most popular colors generally fall in the middle of the value chart.
Rarity alone doesn’t guarantee value. Purple, brown and gold are about as rare as yellow yet retain the least value over all.
There are other anomalies, such as the previously mentioned beige paradox. Trucks did well in muted colors, possibly because, as work vehicles, those hues show less dirt and company names painted on the sides are easy to read.
S.U.V.s did best in flashy colors, possibly because the drivers didn’t want to feel like drudges.
“You are buying the S.U.V. to avoid the minivan,” said Jonah Berger, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School with expertise in marketing psychology. A lively color, he said, “makes us feel like: ‘I am driving a fun car. I am a fun, exciting person.’”
Apparently minivan owners are focused on utility. Blue retained the most value, losing 39 percent, but that wasn’t much different from the worst, brown, at 42 percent.
This makes it difficult to assess the “best” color for a car. It might be better to consider the best color for a type of buyer.
“People buy things for different reasons,” Mr. Berger said. “Sometimes we buy them for what they do. Sometimes we buy them for what they say about us.”
People who buy cars for utility, like minivan and fleet buyers, seem to value subtle colors that are easy to care for. People who buy a car as a personal statement — sports- and muscle-car owners — value glitzy colors.
That still complicates the paint choice for vehicles that defy categorization. Jeeps and trucks are utility vehicles for some and showpieces for others, who bolt on lift kits, light bars and custom grilles. The Jeep Wrangler retained the most value in Xtreme Purple, a color usually at the bottom of the overall chart. Purple Wranglers kept $2,398 more value than the same model in utilitarian silver.
Color prognosticators agree that the new color to reckon with is blue. Last year it accounted for 10 percent of cars on lots, equal to silver. But which blue? Dark? Light? Metallic? People who make a livelihood from car paint see vast differences between shades of a single hue, even mundane white.
“The white we have is not the white we had 20 years ago,” said Paul Czornij, head of color design for car paint at BASF. A carmaker might ask him for “a white metallic that is a little bluish, and from this grazing angle it has this property, and from this angle is has that property,” he added. “That is very exciting.”
For consumers, those fine points appear to have little effect on value. The iSeeCars data shows that metallic paint’s value advantage over nonmetallic is insignificant.
Ultimately, many buyers may choose paint color disregarding both value and popularity to achieve a third goal, Mr. Berger said: “Maybe having a color that’s different than white makes you happy.”