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What’s happening to the color of L.A. cars? Inside the obsession with muted earth tones

Right. Muddy. Neutral. Unsaturated.

Even wet putty.

There are many descriptions for a new style of car paint that has become popular in recent years, but none capture the essence of the know-it-when-you-see-it look.

The shades are muted earth tones — grays, browns, browns, and others — that lack the light-reflecting metallic flakes typically mixed with automotive paint. And it’s a look that’s gone from rare to almost ubiquitous in car-obsessed Los Angeles over the course of a decade. Companies from Porsche to Jeep, Nissan and Hyundai now offer this type of paint.

Automakers say these earthy tones convey a sense of adventure — even unobtrusiveness. For some design experts, the colors represent harmony with nature. To other observers, they have a quasi-military feel, reflecting the craze for all things tactical. And car critics see in them the expression of drivers’ contradictory desires – to stand out and at the same time be compliant.

“I find the color soothing; I think this color is very calming,” says Tara Subkoff, a recording artist and actress whose credits include “The Last Days of Disco,” who drives a Porsche Panamera painted a subdued gray color called Chalk. “When there’s this much traffic, and it’s literally increasing astronomically in recent months — and almost unbearably — to have less red and orange might be a good thing.”

The 2023 Nissan Z is offered in conventional metallic colors, such as Seiran Blue, at left, and a muted earthy hue called Boulder Gray, which does not contain aluminum flake, a material that makes car paint sparkle. Use the slider to compare the two colors.


Do you want this calm look? It’s going to cost you. Sometimes sweetie. The paint colors, which are usually offered on sports cars and commercial vehicles, often have a high price. In some cases, they are just options that can add a few hundred dollars to a car’s price tag. In others, they run upwards of $10,000 and are reserved for specialty cars, such as extra-rugged off-roaders or ultra-powerful two-seaters.

“People are willing to go up a trim level and pay a premium for these colors because some cars look the best,” said Ivan Drury of Edmunds, the car information service, who noted that these colors are sometimes only offered for a short period of time. period, creating a sense of urgency among potential buyers. “It’s, ‘Hey, if you like this, you better buy it now, because you’re never going to see it in this model again.’ ”

The trend was started by Audi in 2013 with the debut of the color Nardo Gray on its RS 7, a powerful four-door coupé whose twin-turbocharged V-8 produced more than 550 hp. It was, said Mark Dahncke, Audi of America’s communications director, the first “solid gray color on the market,” referring to paint that doesn’t shimmer. A few years later, the company offered the color on other high-speed RS models.

This 2021 Audi RS 6 Avant is painted in Nardo Gray, a trendsetting color that the German brand debuted in 2013.


“Audi has certainly set a trend in this day and age,” said Dahncke. “Now solid colors are becoming more and more popular.”

While these muted tones have been offered by car manufacturers for a decade, their huge popularity seems to have largely escaped the attention of the mainstream media. The few substantive reports on the style shift in recent years include an article on Capital One’s website: yes, the sofa – and a mention in the trend spotting newsletter Blackbird Spyplane, written by Jonah Weiner and Erin Wylie. a 2022 piece in the newsletter asked by Weiner with all-caps urgency: WHAT’S WITH ALL THESE PUTTY-LOOKIN’ A** WHIPS??

The essay noted that the effect of the “wet putty” paint was “sneaky but striking”.

Vehicles coated in these non-metallic colors “reflect less light than we’ve become accustomed to in recent decades with lots of flake, and so they take on a greater visual density than their flaked counterparts,” Weiner wrote. “The result is vague but palpably eerie.”

Drive around LA and it’s clear these earthy colors are on the rise. On a recent afternoon, Subkoff’s Porsche was parked on Larchmont Boulevard just a few spaces from a Jeep Wrangler that had been painted a subtle color known as Gobi (the limited edition paint, which cost an additional $495, is no longer available on the car). But it’s hard to find numbers that quantify the success of these shades, in part because the available paint color data provides little detail. Several car manufacturers also refused to disclose relevant figures.

A Toyota RAV4 painted in a muted, earthy hue

A Toyota RAV4 – painted in a muted, earthy hue – in West Hollywood.

(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

One way to measure success is to see how quickly vehicles painted in certain colors sell. In the case of the Hyundai Santa Cruz, a four-door truck launched in 2021, two muted earth tones — Blue Stone and Sage Gray — are among the fastest-selling colors of the six offered by Hyundai on the truck, according to Derek Joyce, a spokesman for Hyundai Motor North America.

The available data supports an obvious truth about car colors: Americans have homogeneous taste. According to Edmunds, vehicles painted various shades of white, gray, black and silver accounted for 75% of new car sales in the US last year.

So how do you get adventurous with your car color if you’re actually not that adventurous? You pay extra to lose the sparkle.

Origin of the trend

Ask automakers, designers, and color experts about the origins of the non-metallic paint trend, and you’ll be inundated with high-concept theories.

Drury, director of insights for Edmunds, believes the earth tones phenomenon stems from the car tuner subculture. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, he said, car enthusiasts who added body kits and other items to the exterior of their vehicles would spray them with primer — it comes in white, gray or black — and wait to get a paint job to all their adjustments. were complete. Some adopted the style.

“People just chose to keep them that way,” Drury said.

These primed rides had a matte look that seems to have fueled the craze of so-called “killed” vehicles dressed in flat black paint. The look can also be achieved by getting a protective full body wrap on a car – another trend that has grown over the past decade.

Drury believes those fads “let automakers know that premium paint didn’t always equate to the one with the most gloss (or) brilliance.”

Color designers and automaker executives pointed to other sources of inspiration.

Audi’s Dahncke said Nardo Gray was born out of a desire for a special color for the company’s line of high-performance RS vehicles.

“The color should emphasize the sporty character of the cars and emphasize the confident stance on the road, but at the same time be pure,” he said.

A 2023 Hyundai Santa Cruz

A 2023 Hyundai Santa Cruz is shown in Sage Gray, a color that debuted in 2021. It is one of several muted earth tones that have become increasingly popular in cars.

(Hyundai Motor North America)

Hyundai’s Blue Stone and Sage Gray shades were conceived by Erin Kim, creative manager at Hyundai Design North America. She said she took inspiration from nature, which resonated especially in a world battling the COVID-19 pandemic. More than ever, she said, people are focused on “enjoying the outdoors.”

“We want our color palette to look good in the natural environment,” she said.

Consumers may want their vehicles to not only look good in, say, a wooded valley, but also convey the idea that they care about wooded valleys. Leatrice Eiseman, executive director of the Pantone Color Institute, traces the emergence of muted, earthy tones to consumers’ growing environmental awareness.

“We are seeing social/political movements responding to this concern about the environment and drawing a lot of attention to using less artifice and moving to what is seen as real and natural,” she said. These colors “help to represent that purpose.”

Nature is also a key inspirational concept at Nissan, whose vehicles are now available in aluminum flakeless shades of Boulder Grey, Baja Storm and Tactical Green. But it is a certain kind of nature.

“Not earthly, of course. Earthy high-tech,” explained Moira Hill, Nissan Design America’s lead color and trim designer, who related the car colors to the tech gear adventurers would cram into their 4x4s for weekend trips in the mountains. For example, if you pocket $500 carbon fiber camping chairwhy wouldn’t you want your car to match it?

A 2023 Nissan Pathfinder Rock Creek

The 2023 Nissan Pathfinder Rock Creek is offered in a paint color called Baja Storm, which is muted and earthy.

(Nissan engine)

It’s not just about projecting a sense of adventure. Boulder Gray paint, for example, provides an unobtrusive vibe when applied to Nissan’s Z sports car, Hill said. “It’s understated and not flashy,” she said.

That these colors appear on vehicles under $30,000, such as the Nissan Kicks and Hyundai Santa Cruz, is symbolic of the democratization of chosen earth tones. Tints that were once only available on much more expensive cars – the RS 7 had a base price of about $105,000 when it debuted in 2013 in Nardo Gray – can now be ridden on much more accessible rides. Drury is not surprised.

“It’s like most things, they seep through the industry,” he said. “Whether it’s performance, safety or infotainment, it will trickle down as long as there’s receptivity.”

‘Just hip enough’

Car buyers need not necessarily concern themselves with the philosophical underpinnings of these colours. Most of those interviewed for this report said they bought cars in these earthy, non-sparkle tones simply because they liked the look.

Car collector Spike Feresten, the host of the podcast “Spike’s Car Radio,” has had two very powerful Porsche models – a 911 GT2 RS and 911 GT3 – painted in Chalk, a color the company debuted in 2016. Feresten called Chalk “understated but just hip enough.”

“I think people are choosing that because they’re taking a small step forward in the risk of car color choice,” he said. “They realize they’ve been in the big four — black, gray, white, or silver — and they want to try and spice it up a bit. So they take a baby step to Chalk.

Feresten regrets selling both vehicles. “I’m missing something Cretaceous,” he said.

A 2022 Taycan GTS

This Taycan GTS from 2022 is sprayed Chalk, a trendy color.

(Porsche Cars North America)

So Feresten is eagerly awaiting his next Porsche in a non-metallic paint: a 718 Cayman GT4 RS in Oslo Blue. It is a historic color used by Porsche on its famous 356 model in the early 1960s. The tint, Feresten said, is offered through the company’s Paint to Sample program. Pre-approved colors start at about $11,000; fully custom shades go for around $23,000 and up.

As for Subkoff, while she loves the color of her Porsche (“It’s so chic”), she doesn’t like the car itself (“It’s not me”). She said she plans to get rid of the Panamera and replace it with a Jeep Wrangler 4xe, the company’s plug-in hybrid offering.

She already knows what color it will be.

Muted. And earthy.