Why is White the World’s Most Polarizing Car Color?


During my years in the auto industry, I learned there are certain attributes buyers associated with particular car colors, and most of the time they are completely wrong. One thing I’ve found to be true though is that white has to be the world’s most polarizing color, and here’s why.

White is a great color for cars in hot sunny countries, and that’s because of the practical reasons it reflects the heat and helps keep the interior cooler than dark colors. When it isn’t a matter of practicality though, people seem to either love or hate white, but it can also depend greatly on the actual vehicle as some seem to suit it while others absolutely don’t.

Practical or not?

As I said, white is a great color for a vehicle if you live somewhere like the United Arab Emirates, where the sun always appears to be shining and the temperatures are always incredibly high. But it’s hard to make the argument for it reflecting the heat if you live somewhere like Canada or Alaska.

To be fair, white can also be seen as a practical color for other reasons, regardless of where you live. A lot of the time, white paint is offered by manufacturers as a “flat” color at no extra cost. That means it doesn’t have metallic flakes and it isn’t pearlescent, so for a body shop to match and blend when carrying out a repair is easier than it is with more flamboyant colors.

One reason I’ve been given by a lot of customers who don’t want a white car is that they see it as hard or impossible to keep clean. In my experience, and if you ask most detailers, white is actually one of the easier colors to clean as it’s easy to see the dirt and where you have and haven’t already cleaned.

One thing about white few people appear to mention is the fact it’s easy for other road users to see. White is a bright and reflective color, so white vehicles are going to be more noticeable in the dark than black or dark colored cars. I’m not sure that’s a reason why too many buyers would shun black for white on their next car, but it’s certainly a fact worthy of consideration.  

In truth, black is actually the most difficult color to keep clean, although most customers I’ve come across believe the complete opposite. Black cars look fantastic when they’ve just been cleaned and polished to within an inch of their life, but it doesn’t take long until the dust settles and ruins the look. White holds up better than that; trust me!

Fashion?

In some markets around the world, white never goes out of fashion, but in other markets, it rarely ever comes into fashion. In the UK for example, I’ve experienced times when I was young when it was perfectly normal to buy a white car. In fact, I remember my father owning at least two white cars when I was a kid.

However, while I was in the retail auto business I spent the first half of my career not seeing or even thinking of a white car under any circumstances, and the second half not being able to get enough of them.

I even remember a colleague at one of our Land Rover dealerships getting demoted for making a mistake that saw the business ending up with 10 Range Rovers going into build in white. At the time, when you ordered your vehicle allocation each month, the default setting was for them to be base models in white until you configure them otherwise.

He forgot to configure them, and it only became apparent that 10 Range Rove SE models were coming in white after it was too late to amend them. Although the base model would always still be a problem, the fact they were white wouldn’t have been an issue five years later. At the time though, the only way to get out of the situation was to do a deal with the police to buy them.

I also remember having a really good customer who would come in and swap his Range Rover Sport every year for a brand new one. After about three years he started mentioning the fact he quite fancied the idea of having a white one next time. As he was such a great customer I was totally honest with him.

Buyers rarely like the trade-in price you offer them, and this guy was no exception. I remember telling him that if he didn’t like the price I was giving him this year for his black one, he’d really hate the price I’d be offering if he was bringing in a white one instead. Two years later, the market and fashions had changed completely, and my customer got his white one and then complained that there were now too many of them around!

Why not white?

There are some genuine reasons for not liking white cars, and one of the best reasons is they can look cheap. In some cases, they can actually look really cheap. To be fair, it’s not just down to white itself looking cheap; it’s the type of white that matters.

As I mentioned earlier, white is sometimes a default color, and it can be a default color because it’s cheap. Or at least it used to be cheap, but more of that in a moment. A lot of cheap rental and fleet cars are white because it’s the cheapest option, and who cares what color a car is when it’s only a rental? Not only is it cost-effective for fleets and rentals, but the actual paint used is also often cheap and looks dull and uninspiring.

One thing many buyers are obsessed with when it comes to buying cars is resale value, and white has certainly had its moments with resale values. The thing is, it’s like any color other than perhaps black. The popularity of white is always likely to ebb and flow, so you can be taking a chance with your resale value by choosing white. If you don’t hand on to your vehicle long before changing again you’ll probably be fine, but if you keep your vehicle for 5 to 8 years you could be unlucky.

Black never goes out of fashion, but there is another problem with white being fashionable, and that’s how noticeable it is. You tend to notice white cars, and when there are a lot of them you notice them a lot more. When a color (other than black) is insanely popular for a while people get bored of seeing it, and they then tend to start gravitating to other colors (or back to black).  

The evolution of white

Of course, once white started to get popular again a decade or so ago, manufacturers found they weren’t making as much money as they were used to as buyers were choosing this no-cost paint over expensive metallic options.  

That was never going to last, and it didn’t. Although most mass-market manufacturers still offer a non-metallic white in their color palettes, most now also offer costly premium options too. While the more cynical among us might think that is just a way of squeezing extra money out of customers, you really should see a non-metallic white alongside another model in something like a pearlescent white.

The very clean, crisp, bright whites and pearlescent whites have today have lifted this previously humble color to new heights, and it could mean that white is unlikely to go completely out of fashion ever again.

The model helps…… a lot!

Even in premium white paint, modest, humble and cheap cars can still look, well, modest, humble and cheap. On the other hand, a lot of high-end cars look absolutely sensational in white and can often look better in white than any other color. At the moment, there’s also a fashion in the auto industry for black-painted alloy wheels, and they look especially good with white cars.

I could go on all day about some cars that look sensational in white, but a few that immediately spring to mind are the Aston Martin Vantage, Ferrari 488 and the Jaguar F-Pace. On the more affordable front, check out a Ford Edge ST in white with black alloys and privacy glass to see just how much white can transform and lift the entire look of a relatively affordable vehicle.

How popular are white cars?

Although white is claimed by some to be the most popular car color in the world right now, that’s probably not strictly true everywhere. According to Wikipedia, the most popular global colors with over 70% of the market are what they refer to as grayscale, which includes white, black, grays and silvers.

In the results complied by American paint manufacturers PPG Industries and DuPont, white is the most popular globally with PPG at 22% and DuPont at 23%, while in the US they say it is 21% and 24% respectively.

However, according to the website CarMax, black remains the most popular color for vehicles in the US with 22.25%, while white comes in second with 19.34%.

Will white stay the course?

I think you’re probably safer buying a white car today than you’ve ever been, especially if it’s an expensive luxury car or something more affordable in a premium white like a pearlescent. In the area where I am at the moment, white has been popular with buyers for about nine years now, and that’s already the longest period anyone I know can remember where white hasn’t gone right out of fashion. Even so, it’s still a somewhat polarizing color. The good news is there are probably more people who like it today than those who don’t these days, but those who don’t like it REALLY don’t like it and will probably walk away from the best deal ever on a used car if it’s in white.

Of course, if you do like the idea of having a white car but you’re concerned about the eventual effect on the resale value with choosing such a polarizing color, there is a solution. That solution is to lease your next new car, which means you can have it whatever color you want without having to give a thought to the resale value as you won’t be the one who has to re-sell it at the end of your agreement.

Sean Cooper

Former retail auto industry professional for almost a decade and now an automotive writer and journalist for the last 7 years

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