Is Metallic Paint too Expensive?


When you go to buy a new car there are all sorts of extras available that can start to bump the price up quickly and considerably, but your options will be severely limited if you don’t want to pay extra money to have metallic paint. I therefore need to address the question of whether metallic paint is too expensive or can automakers justify the significant extra cost it adds to the price of a new car.

It does cost more for automakers to produce a car with metallic paint than it does to produce the same vehicle with solid paint, but the extra production cost isn’t anywhere near as high as the price charged to the customer as a healthy profit margin is also built-in.

Why is Metallic Paint for Cars so Expensive?

There’s more to justify the extra cost of metallic paint on new cars than just the expense to the manufacturer of adding some metal flake to flat paint. Metallic and pearlescent paints often require more layers of application than flat or solid colors and several layers of protective clear coat are also required. Solid or flat paints are definitely easier to apply using either a single application of water-based paint with a lacquer layer on top or a “two-pack” paint and hardener system.

Also, not all metallic paints and pearlescent paints are created equal. You probably wouldn’t be too surprised to hear that the paint on a new Rolls-Royce is considerably deeper and more specialized than the paint on your new Chevy Malibu or Kia Sportage, would you? Then again, don’t be fooled into thinking there aren’t some non-luxury new vehicles around that have better paint than some supposedly luxury models costing considerably more.

The only time you know for sure just how good the paint job is on your vehicle is when you have to get it repaired, but that’s another subject I’ll cover in a moment.

Basically, the extra cost of metallic paint is largely down to labor costs and not necessarily the cost of materials, although you might be staggered to learn how much it can cost in those raw materials to paint a whole car. Even so, we need to understand the difference between a specialist body shop painting a car and a car being painted on a production line in a factory.

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The majority of cars on production lines are painted by being dipped in a tank of paint, so forget the idea of a guy in a hasmat suit with a paint gun spraying layer upon layer of paint until the desired finish is achieved. That’s what happens in a body shop and that’s why it can cost many, many thousands of dollars to get even a relatively modest car resprayed.

Is Metallic Paint More Durable?

Most of us don’t mind paying a little more upfront for something if it’s going to save us more down the line, so you could justify paying more for metallic paint on a new car if it was more durable than cheaper flat or solid paint. I’ve seen some articles online claiming that the extra clear coats used for metallic and pearlescent finishes mean they’re more resistant to everyday damage, and to some extent this is true.

A really high-quality paint job with multiple layers of clear coat will give extra protection from the sun’s UV rays and restrict fading, but the idea it will make your paintwork more resistant to stone chips and scratches is stretching things a little too far. Unless it’s a really dark color, it may be harder to see the least serious stone chips and scratches, but the idea that paying $500 extra for metallic paint will make your vehicle more resistant to chips and scratches is pushing the bounds of honesty.

Metallic Paint Comes in More Colors?

Have you ever looked at a car brochure and noticed how many metallic and pearlescent colors are available and how few solid paint options there are? Why do you think that is? Is it because there are more colors available in metallic paint and there just aren’t as many solid paints available? Of course it isn’t.

You’ll always find more metallic, pearlescent and “special” paint options because the manufacturer makes more money from them and therefore wants to encourage you to pay for them. The easiest way to get new car buyers to pay extra for metallic paint is to limit the number of solid paint options available to make the metallic paint options more attractive.

I accept that metallic paint often looks better than flat, non-metallic paints on just about any new vehicle, but I refuse to accept the metallic paint options on something like a Ford Escape are worth the money they charge. Let’s take a 2021 Ford Escape SE for example. To be fair, most of the paints don’t cost extra, but Rapid Red costs an extra $395 and Star White costs a whopping $595 more than standard paints. I’d accept maybe a couple of hundred bucks extra at a push, but an extra $595 on the $28,250 MSRP to go for Star White instead of Oxford White? No thanks!

In researching this article I did come across one pleasant surprise, which is the growing number of luxury and non-luxury new vehicles where you don’t have to pay extra for all metallic paints, but where the extra charges do apply they’re still too high and too common for my liking.

It would be easy for automakers to offer as many flat paint options as they offer metallic paint options but they are in the business of making money, so why would they want to cut off or even reduce a relatively lucrative income stream by giving buyers more no-cost options?

Metallic Paint Looks Better than Solid Paint

Most of the time, metallic paint looks better on a vehicle than a solid color but it’s not always the case. I admit that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but I came very close to choosing a flat color a couple of years ago over the metallic option simply because I preferred the way the flat paint looked, compares to the metallic versions.

I was looking to buy a new convertible and there was a sensational deal available on a new Audi A5 Cabriolet. I went to a local dealership to check them out and they had a white one in the showroom with the roof down. I went outside to look at another white one with the roof up and noticed it was a different white. I preferred the one in the showroom and would have gone with that if I hadn’t got swayed towards a Mercedes C Class instead. It turned out the one I liked was Ibis White (solid) which was a no-cost option, while the other was Glacier White Metallic which currently costs an extra $595.

The reason the one with the no-cost Ibis White was in the showroom was it allowed the dealership to show the car off at its lowest possible price to attract buyers. I can honestly say that if I’d gone on to purchase the Audi and they offered me either white for the same price I would still have gone with the solid Ibis White over the metallic.

Maintaining and Repairing Metallic Paint

If you think metallic paint is expensive when you buy a new car just wait until you have to repair a vehicle with an expensive metallic paint. Although fixing a dent or scratch and respraying with solid paint is still a skilled job and is never cheap, the extra it costs to fix an area when you have metallic paint will make your eyes water. You don’t have to have a particularly large area fixed for it to costs more than you paid for metallic paint for the whole car when you bought it.

I’m not advocating you shun metallic paints just because they cost more to repair, but I do think it’s something you need to consider if there are solid paint options available when you buy that you might like the look of.

Resale Value

Plenty of dealers will tell you when you’re looking to buy a new car that you’ll be hit hard in the pocket when you come to trade your vehicle in at a later date if you’ve chosen solid paint over an expensive metallic option. I’m not going to say there’s no truth in this claim, and I’ll even admit to telling customers the very same thing when I was selling new cars.

However, the amount of difference there is between metallic and solid paint when it comes to resale values can vary immensely and there’s more to it than just the paint itself.

Let’s say you’ve bought that Ford Escape SE and you come to trade it in for something else in three years. How much difference to the trade-in price do you think it will make if you’ve paid $595 extra for Star White instead of no-cost Oxford White? A couple of hundred dollars, maybe?

In fact, whether your three-year-old Ford Escape SE is in Star White or Oxford White probably won’t make the slightest difference to the resale value. What will make a difference will be the condition, the number of miles it’s done and the service history. Different colors can affect the value of a car significantly, but that’s down to the actual color and not whether it’s metallic or solid. Let’s be honest; a pink used SUV isn’t going to be worth as much as an identical one in black, whether the pink is metallic and the black is solid or not.

What About Pearlescent and “Special” Paints?

If you think metallic paint is expensive to buy and to fix then you might want to check out the costs associated with pearlescent and “special” paints.   

Pearlescent Paint – Pearlescent finishes are created by the addition of ceramic crystals to the paint that reflects and refracts light to create a depth of color that even metallic paints can’t hope to match. Under bright light, lighter pearlescent paint colors become iridescent and can even appear to be different colors from different angles, sometimes to spectacular effect. The big problem with all that, of course, is that pearlescent paints are even more susceptible to marks and even more difficult and costly to repair than metallics.

Most non-luxury automakers offer at least one or two pearlescent paint options but luxury manufacturers tend to offer considerably more and at considerably more expense.

Special Paint – When I first joined a Land Rover dealership way back at the start of the century I was completely new to the auto business, so the first thing I did was sit down with a bunch of brochures to familiarize myself with the models and prices. The only thing I remember from that first day was coming ascross “special” paint options available from the Land Rover Special Vehicles (LRSV) department.

A new Range Rover at the time probably cost around $80,000, but it was perfectly possible to go outside the paints offered in the brochure and ask for a special color. There was a price to pay for this, of course, and that price could be as much as $14,000 at the time.

If you ever watch TV shows like Fast N Loud or Count’s Customs you’ve probably been shocked and amazed at some of the one-off paint jobs that get done and how much they cost. The work involved can be immense and the price reflects it.

Techniques include layering lighter shades on top of darker ones, such as red on top of black, which then creates some eye-catching tinted effects. Layering different types of pearlescent paints can also be done to create a multi-faceted effect that bursts into all sorts of different shades once it’s out in the sunlight, and even something as simple as using a tinted lacquer can also have a dramatic effect.

If you want it and your pockets are deep enough, most high-end car manufacturers will create any color you want for your new ride. If you want your car to match your sunglasses or you just want something completely original they’ll gladly oblige – at a price. If you have the resources you can pretty much have anything you want, even such largesse as having real gold, silver or diamonds mixed into the paint.

Matte Paint – A particular favorite of mine is matte paint, especially black or gray, but don’t think this kind of monochrome paint is a cheap alternative. Matte finishes can be achieved in several ways such as using a primer with a high epoxy content, a high PVC content in the paint itself, or by adding a flattening agent to the lacquer.

Whichever method is used, matte paints do the opposite of metallic and pearlescent by absorbing more light than it reflects to produce a dull sheen with a unique texture to the color for an entirely different look.

Unfortunately, matte finishes are a bit like the trophy wife of the auto paint world as they are very high maintenance. They need to be cleaned on a regular basis with specialized shampoos and polishes, and heaven help you if you park near trees as bird droppings have to be cleaned off as soon as humanly possible because the acids they contain can burn through the finish and ruin it very quickly.

BMW used to sell a special edition of its M3 in a matte paint finish a while ago, but if you went for that finish you had to accept a warranty waiver requiring you to take scrupulous care of it.

My thoughts

What I’d say in summary is go for the paint you like when buying a brand new car, truck or SUV, but go into it with your eyes open to the pros and cons of whatever paint you choose. I spent a couple of years talking a particular customer of mine into NOT ordering a Range Rover Sport in white pearlescent because I knew I would give him a lower trade-in price in a couple of years when he came back for a new one. Eventually, fashion changed, and now white is one of the most sought-after colors around.

I don’t think metallic paint justifies the price automakers charge for it, but what are you going to do? $595 is too much to justify for a different paint on a Ford Escape when you can have another perfectly attractive color for no extra cost, but if you absolutely love that special color and can afford the extra $595 then who cares?

Just don’t let anyone convince you that paying hundreds or even thousands of dollars more for fancy paint on a new car will get you a significantly better trade-in price when the day comes to buy something else because it won’t. Metallic paint is too expensive for what it is but there isn’t much you can do about it other than buy a vehicle that includes metallic paint in the MSRP. Even then, you still know the car’s MSRP would be lower if metallic paint wasn’t included, don’t you?

Sean Cooper

Former retail auto industry professional for almost a decade and an automotive writer and journalist for the last 8 years

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