Why Is Every Car on the Road Black, White, Gray or Silver?

Color choices reveal more about you than you'd think

Next time you're stuck in traffic, look around: Does it seem like nearly all the cars around you are white, black or some version of silver? If so, don't blame your tired commuter eyes: For the last five years or so, the neutral palette has literally ruled the road.

A recent survey by Axalta Coating Systems shows that white is the world's most popular automotive color, covering 29 percent of vehicles. In North America, white has a lock on 25 percent of cars. Black is a close second, sprayed and baked onto 19 percent of automobiles globally. Automotive color data released late last year by PPG yielded similar findings. In North America, white, black and gray account for 23 percent, 18 percent and 16 percent, respectively, of the new automotive paint jobs out there.

Why? It's certainly not for lack of choices. The 2016 Ford Explorer (to cite a random example) comes in 10 color options, including shades called Caribou and Blue Jeans. Yet statistics show that most buyers will still opt for black or white. According to Jane E. Harrington, PPG's manager of automotive color styling, one reason might be the disconnect between the sexy colors that auto brands show in their marketing and the icy fear that grips the actual car buyer at the dealership.

"A lot of times a consumer may have seen that gray-orange in an advertisement or on a billboard, but by the time they make the expensive purchase they're more conservative," she said. "They think, 'Can I really have that color for five years?'"

The popularity of gray and silver, some have suggested, reflects Americans' love affair with technology (witness our laptops and smart phones). In the luxury segment alone, silver coat goes on 20 percent of the cars purchased, according to PPG.

Harrington also relates that plain-old American impetuousness may have a lot to do with it. Frequently, unusual colors represent a special order that means a customer will have to wait to get the car—and waiting is, as they say, the hardest part. Driving off the lot on the day of purchase means choosing from what's available, and what's usually available are the basic colors. "Most manufacturers have eight to 10 color choices, but we've done consumer surveys in the past where people say, 'I only saw five at the dealership,'" Harrington said.

Color choice also seems to have some relationship with what's going on in the back of buyers' minds. For example, new-car customers who plan to sell their wheels at some point down the road may be aware that that car color affects resale chances. A 2012 report from The Car Connection put it bluntly: "If you don't get white, silver or black … you're risking a slower sale."

Color choice may also reflect our national mood. In May 2008, just as the Great Recession was showing its teeth, CNW Marketing Research released a survey of 1,900 American motorists that matched their confidence levels with their car colors. The release showed that drivers with white cars had only "average" confidence, while those driving black cars exhibited a confidence level 14.6 percent below average.

But now that things are looking up, brighter colors may be on the horizon. Silver and gray's popularity has actually slipped 7 percent over the preceding two years, according to PPG's numbers. And Harrington notes that more "chromatic colors"—reds, blues and greens—are starting to make inroads. "But will that change the conservativeness of car buyers?" she wondered. "I'm not sure."

@UpperEastRob robert.klara@adweek.com Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.