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The Boston Globe

Business

In a shaky economy, cars get safe colors

White leads in 2012, partly due to iPhone’s look

DETROIT — If you bought a new car this year, chances are high it was white or silver.

Twenty-two percent of cars and trucks built for the 2012 model year have white paint, making it the most popular color worldwide. Silver is close behind, at 20 percent, followed by black at 19 percent. Gray and red round out the top five.

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White is the most popular color for the second year in a row after overtaking silver in 2011. The annual rankings are compiled by PPG Industries Inc., a Pittsburgh company that provides paints to General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co., BMW AG, and others.

The rankings are skewed by the large number of pickup trucks on the market. Trucks accounted for 55 percent of North American production in the first eight months of this year, according to Ward’s, which compiles automotive data. One in four pickups produced is white because business owners often use them as work trucks and paint logos on them. By comparison, 19 percent of mid-size cars made in North America are white.

White, popular in the 1980s, is making a comeback as a modern, high-tech color thanks in part to Apple Inc.’s all-white stores and glossy white gadgets, said Jane Harrington, PPG’s manager of color styling for car companies.

Manufacturers are also making more varieties of white, from the flat, bright white on many vans to the pearly cream of luxury SUVs.

Silver also rose in popularity starting in the 2000s. It remains popular because it highlights every angle of a car, Harrington said.

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‘‘Silver looks great on any design,’’ Harrington said.

White and other ‘‘safe’’ colors — silver, gray, and black — also got more popular during the economic downturn, as buyers stopped leasing and bought vehicles they expected to hold onto for much longer, said Michelle Killen, GM’s lead color designer for exterior paints.

‘‘Buyers want to purchase a color they won’t grow tired of over an extended period of time,’’ Killen said.

Color preferences vary by geography. You’ll find more red vehicles in North America. Black and gray overtake silver in Europe. Drivers in Asia like tan and gold but not green.

Only about 7 percent of cars in every region are blue.

PPG, which also develops paints for cellphones, laptops, airplanes, and houses, bases its automotive paints on trends it sees in fashion, interior design, and other areas.

Harrington saw a lot of purple at a recent home show in Paris, for example, so she helped develop a purplish gray paint for cars.

PPG starts showing paints to carmakers three or four years ahead of a model’s release, and automakers settle on colors two or three years before a model goes on sale.

Harrington predicts customers will see more browns and oranges over the next two years, especially on luxury cars.

Brown — which reminds people of leather or a rich cup of coffee — evokes luxury around the world. Earthy colors are also appealing to drivers concerned about the environment.

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