50 Shades of Grey- The Sterilization of Automotive Color

It’s 5pm and I find myself stuck in DC Metro traffic yet again.  I’ve driven this route countless times.  I know that I need to be clear of the area by rush hour, yet somehow, here I sit.  Again.  That helpless feeling starts to set in as I look around at all the other vehicles stopped on the same strip of tarmac.  The sun is painting a masterpiece in the western sky as it clocks out on this chilly December day, but the other drivers don’t seem to take notice.  They’ve got no time for color.  They’re stuck in a world of grey.

According to people who specialize in this sort of thing, grey is “an emotionless, moody color” that is “often associated with depression.”  Quite interestingly, it also happens to be considered timeless and practical by those same color specialists.  Other popular choices based on that evening’s interstate focus group are mostly white and black, but arguably they’re just as boring and my methods really aren’t all that scientific.

It goes without saying then, that the Nogaro Blue S4 (with blue Alcantara seats, no less) that I happen to be piloting gains quite a bit of attention.  The color harkens back to a time when manufacturers took chances, gaining prominence by being featured on a wagon developed in part by Porsche.  In the case of this brand new S4, the bold color choice is being used to inject some life into an aging model in the form of a special edition.  It’s a configuration that my friend calls “the nerd spec”, and I’d agree.

So as I sit and try my best to disguise the fact that I’m singing along to Blank Space while waiting for the blockage to sort itself out, I have a moment of clarity.  This world needs more color.  Vibrant, bright, loud, unapologetic in-your-face color.

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Once upon a time, Volkswagen offered colors that were more than just slightly different shades of grey, with the occasional blue and red thrown in.  Colors like Ginster Yellow, Jazz Blue, Montana Green, Rave Green and Tropic Orange.  Hell, they even built and sold Harlequin Mk3s, which featured four different bright shades, none of which were grey, white or black.  These colors served as lightning rods, attracting young, hip people to the brand and built a core group of enthusiasts.  The colors were fun, the cars didn’t take themselves too seriously, and most importantly- it worked.

For the life of me, I can’t seem to figure out why these shades of grey are so popular on new vehicles.  Could it be a physical representation of ‘PC’ culture that 24-hour news pundits yell about, with drivers not wanting to offend anyone or decrease precious resale value with a bold color choice?  Or perhaps a manifestation of people wanting to be considered average (ex. the common claim of “middle class” economic status when that’s seldom the case), and just sort of blending in with the masses?  Maybe it’s the byproduct of a reeling auto industry, unwilling to take chances and mess up their increasing sales numbers, hungry for those pre-2008 numbers.

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Now, would it be risky to roll out a few polarizing colors?  Of course it would.  But I’d argue that risk is exactly what Volkswagen needs right now, and they certainly wouldn’t be the first company to take one.

BMW did it with Yas Marina Blue and Austin Yellow – two bright, love-it-or-hate-it colors on a car that has a starting price of $62,000.  And if you wanted an early example of the latest M3 or M4, BMW made you choose between the two.  Some product planner in Munich stuck out their neck for that, and they should be commended for it. The move took balls.

Want to move a bit downmarket?  Look no further than Mini’s Volcano Orange and Electric Blue. Ford’s got Green Envy and Molten Orange offered on the Fiesta ST.  Other manufacturers have their own versions of loud colors too.  Clearly there is an audience that is interested in a car that doesn’t blend in.

It’s bad enough that most of us have to spend the majority of our weeks in an uncomfortable suit and tie or dress, and sitting in a cubical working on TPS reports for eight hours a day. Do you really want to finally walk to the carpark just to get in a “moody” colored car?  It’d be like walking out with the sunny disposition of San Diego, only to be greeted by the overcast gloom of Seattle.

So, will Volkswagen heed my advice and blow me away with a new color of the ‘roygbiv’ variety?  Perhaps a bit more daring than the Golf R 400’s lime green accents?  Well, that remains to be seen.  Until then, you can find me in the Certified Pre-Owned lot.