Fri | Sep 18, 2020

Two-tone car paint makes a comeback - Nissan, Hyundai among automakers reviving 50s-era styling for SUVs

Published:Sunday | September 6, 2020 | 12:16 AM
Hyundai Kona.
Nissan Rogue.
Kia Seltos.
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If you think you have been seeing a lot of white, silver, gray, or black cars on the road lately, you’re not wrong.

More than three in four vehicles sold today in North America are one of those four monochromatic “colours ” – if you can call them that. But the period of rather subdued colours might be coming to an end.

Automakers have introduced more than half a dozen SUVs in the past two years with two-tone paint options as they seek to differentiate their vehicles from each other and capitalise on new technology. Two-tone paint options usually carry a premium of a few hundred dollars.

In a move that could bring two-tone paint into the mainstream, Nissan announced in June that it would offer two-tone paint options on the redesigned 2021 Nissan Rogue SUV, one of the most popular vehicles in America.

The company previously tried it out on the smaller Kicks crossover. According to Nissan, about 25 per cent of customers picked the two-tone option on the niche Kicks, whose options included a ‘monarch orange’ roof on a ‘gun metallic’ gray body and a ‘fresh powder’ white roof on a ‘deep blue pearl’ body.

Jovan Ramirez, 34, a small-business owner from West Chazy, New York, recently drove a white-on-blue Nissan Kicks that was loaned to his girlfriend while she was getting maintenance done on a Nissan Versa.

“I ended up loving the colour of the vehicle, and it really set it apart,” he said.

When he went to trade in his Subaru Outback shortly thereafter, he had his sights set on a two-tone model and ended up buying the same Kicks he had tried out.

“I just wasn’t interested in anything else because everything was single-toned,” Ramirez said. “Every vehicle looked plain.”

Seeking to capitalise on the appeal of the double colour, Hyundai recently introduced two-tone paint on the Hyundai Venue and Kona crossovers while Hyundai sibling brand Kia is offering it on the Kia Seltos. General Motors also plans to offer two-tone paint on the Chevrolet Trailblazer. Others that have offered two-tone options in recent years include Land Rover’s Range Rover and BMW’s Mini Cooper.

GOING BACK IN TIME

Two-tone paint harks back to what some automotive enthusiasts consider the heyday of automotive design in the 1950s when vehicles like GM’s Corvette and Chevrolet Bel Air often featured multiple colours.

Automakers that have resurrected two-tone paint aren’t necessarily making a nostalgia play. Rather, their bid to mainstream two-tone styling reflects the latest chapter in a feverish competition among brands to distinguish their SUVs from each other.

“Anything that brings back two tones is awesome, and it clearly is about differentiating in ways that have become harder and harder to do,” said Dan Albert, author of Are We There Yet? The AMERICAN AUTOMOBILE PAST, PRESENT & DRIVERLESS

The move towards two-tone exterior paint – which usually involves a different colour roof and possibly a splash of colour below the fender, on side mirrors, or around lights – reflects the auto industry’s attempt to capitalise on the era of product personalisation.

On the Hyundai Kona, for example, you can get ‘sonic silver’ with a black roof, ‘pulse red’ with a black roof, or ‘surf blue’ with a dark-grey roof. Each option costs US$300.

Automakers are “trying to give consumers something that they’re a little bit more excited about and connect with and feel like expresses their personality,” said Stephanie Brinley, principal automotive analyst at research firm IHS Markit.

BLACK, WHITE AND GREY

It certainly marks a sudden shift, considering that cars have gradually been drained of colour over the course of the 21st century.

In North America, 76 per cent of 2019 model-year vehicles were sold in silver or grey (32%), white (25%), or black (19%), according to paint supplier PPG. The most popular choices from the rest of the colour palette were blue (10%), red (9%), and ‘natural’ (3%).

In 2002, the earliest year in which precise data are available, fewer than half of vehicles (48%) were silver, grey, white, or black while 14 per cent were red, 13 per cent were blue, 13 per cent were natural, and 8 per cent were green.

At times in the 1990s, red and green were each the most popular colour, said Nancy Lockhart, global director of colour for paint supplier Axalta, who called herself a “chroma pusher” because she likes “beautiful, bright colours”.

To be sure, vehicle colours have improved in quality and appearance, with automakers offering a wide range of monochromatic variants, often with a sparkling flair.

Gone are the days of what industry insiders have called ‘refrigerator white.’ For example, the recently revealed 2021 Ford Bronco SUV will be offered in colours such as ‘shadow black,’ ‘cactus grey,’ ‘carbonised grey,’ ‘iconic silver’, and ‘oxford white.’

But two-tone options are a ‘massive trend’ due to customers’ interest in personalising their vehicles, said Nicole Fonseca, senior design manager for Nissan. The hues will also be made available on Nissan’s recently introduced electric crossover, the Nissan Ariya, which will arrive next year.

“It gives a lot of character” to the vehicle, Fonseca said. “Most of the customers select colours they’re most safe with, but we’re trying to get them to see this can be fun and expressive.”

CONCERNS ABOUT RESALE VALUE

Despite the recent trend, there are multiple factors that may keep most vehicles looking rather plain. For one, cars with standard colours are typically easier to sell.

“Less popular colours depreciate your vehicle’s value” by anywhere from “hundreds to thousands of dollars depending on the vehicle and the colour in question,” according to car value estimator Kelley Blue Book.

What is more, premium colours typically cost more. Two-tone colour options on the Nissan Kicks, for example, carry a premium of about US$250 to US$500, depending on the model. Nissan has not yet released pricing on the redesigned Rogue.

That said, Americans are already accustomed to paying more to get the exact colour they want. They fork over anywhere from about US$200 to more than US$1,000 for premium paint.

“It’s an extra expense, but people are very proud to be driving around in their car,” Lockhart said.

Albert, the author of the book on automotive history, said that modern vehicles should take some cues from the era in which vehicles had multiple colours.

With a boom in family-oriented SUVs and crossovers, the average hulking vehicle “desperately needs something to make it look interesting”, Albert said. And many buyers of those vehicles “want cars to be exciting again” while maintaining the utility of a modern ride.

Adding a splash of colour to the roof might be enough to get American car buyers to try something new.

About 15 per cent to 20 per cent of consumers would purchase a two-toned vehicle, according to Axalta’s internal research.

When Axalta named ‘Sahara’ as its colour of the year in 2019, the golden bronze shade was intended to serve as the base colour in a two-toned vehicle, likely with black accents, Lockhart said.

“You can play on people’s heartstrings, you can get them emotional about it, you can get them excited about it,” IHS analyst Brinley said.

Some niche vehicles, such as the Mini Cooper, have been offering two-tone options for years, but automakers are looking to turn it into a mainstream play with vehicles like the Rogue and the Trailblazer