General Motors’ advanced design studio in North Hollywood is one stealthy operation. To get in, you need a security code to open the gate that leads to the door where you hand over your phone for the camera to be taped so it can’t take pictures. It’s like Fort Knox for future vehicles.
What, exactly, is GM guarding? Car shapes, concepts and something that might seem surprising — car colors.
“Competitively, everyone is looking for the edge,” said Sharon Gauci.
As GM’s global director of color and trim, Gauci’s the one who calls the shots on exterior shading, giving the green light to a 2016 Cadillac SRX in cocoa bronze metallic or a white frost Buick Enclave.
“Whether it’s technology, design — of course, we don’t want our competitors to see what it is that we’re working on.”
What GM is currently working on, we actually don’t know. When we were granted access — OK, limited access — to its advanced design studio, we only got to see what exterior car colors GM had been working on four years ago which is just now about to come to market — like an electric green.
Which car will get such an unusually eye-popping exterior? Gauci would only say, “You’ll see it this year.”
Same goes for the butter-yellow hue GM calls brimstone. “That will be on a smaller car” is all Gauci would reveal.
These offbeat colors are, unfortunately, the exception in a bland car color universe. Whether it’s an SUV or sport sedan, a hatchback or hybrid, the most popular colors are white, black and gray — and not just in the U.S. That’s globally.
GM may be dressing up its grey as Pepperdust, but still. Most car colors are just plain dull.
“People have a lot of theories to explain that,” said Paul Czornij, head of design for the color excellence group within the German chemical company BASF, which makes coatings, or paints, for cars.
“One of them is this conservative nature of cars and you don’t have a screaming orange on many, many car body styles because screaming orange may be very in vogue or chic at a certain period of time, but as soon as that trend is through, then your car is standing out like a sore thumb,” Czornij said. “And people don’t really want that.”
Another reason is resale. Neutrals help retain a car’s value. Less popular colors can diminish a vehicle’s value from hundreds to thousands of dollars, according to Kelley Blue Book.
What’s in a color? A lot more than meets the eye.
“Color is extremely psychological,” Czornij said. “When most people look at a car, they think it’s a red, green, blue, yellow car, but it’s more than that… It’s an outward expression of who you are as an individual.”
The color of the car you drive says a lot about who you are, or at least who you project yourself to be. White, which is the most popular exterior color, represents youth and modernity.
Black is sophisticated and classic. Silver represents innovation. And grey? It means you’re traditional, mature — you just don’t want to stand out.
But there are far more than 50 shades of grey, and each year Czornij and his team spend 18 months developing some new ones, by looking at fashion, architecture and fabrics. They dig deep into economics and the public mood. And when it’s all said and done, they spit out 65 new colors, including Czornij’s favorites for 2016.
There’s primordial soup, which Czornij describe as “a very deep red color. It’s the color of passion…We in North America tend to be very passionate about everything.”
And rain garden.
“Depending on where you’re standing in front of it, it can look a greenish gold or very bluish even though it is a silver color,” he said.
And finally, there's aerialist wish.
“I tried to link the color to what’s happening in many, many parts of the United States, and that’s the resurgence of urban areas,” Czornij said. “Once neglected, now an influx with younger, can-do people, millennials who want to affect a positive change on these areas.”
In other words, it’s blue. But not just any shade. It’s grayish and gritty and does something only today’s best exterior car colors can do. They change, based on perspective.
“On a sunny day, your car color will look very differently than it does on a rainy day or evening light or at night in a parking structure,” according to Czornij.
So even though you may keep your car for ten years, it might not always look like the same one. And that’s the point for car buyers who venture outside the cozy confines of predictability. To keep it safe, but keep it interesting — “just to make it a little bit more exciting,” said GM’s Sharon Gauci. “The big thing is we need to make sure there’s good choice.”
Plum Crazy anyone?