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Your next car color? Look at your iPhone

Derek Warr | E+ | Getty Images

Henry Ford liked to say that his customers could get a Model T in any color they wanted "as long as it's black"—an option that certainly wouldn't fly today.

Automakers now offer a wide-ranging palette, seemingly every shade between black and white, that continues to grow. BASF, one of the industry's largest paint suppliers, is showing off 65 new hues to automotive designers as part of its annual color trend show.

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While a handful of shades continue to dominate—black, white, silver and gray—other popular colors are strongly influenced by factors ranging from current events to consumer electronics, as well as concerns about the environment, said Paul Czornij, the technical manager of BASF's Color Excellence Group.

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Greens and blues are becoming increasingly popular, he said, reflecting a heightened environmental focus. Meanwhile, white is taking over from the long-popular silver shades, which appears to be linked to growing concerns "on both sides of the political spectrum …that things are not working right," he added.

White has also been buoyed by trends in consumer electronics, Czornij said. The trendsetting Apple iPhone made white a symbol of high technology, something long associated with silver—a color that has lost momentum over the past several years, according to industry sales data.

Today's high-tech paints, meanwhile, let designers riff on different colors, he said. "The nice thing is that you can create a lot of different offerings," from light to dark shades, he said. With green, for example, "you can make very greenish blues or greenish yellows," he added.

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The general trend for the 2014 model-year will be "more and more rich, saturated colors," Czornij predicted. But even white will have more subtle variations in tone and gloss. In fact, one of the biggest trends over the next few years could be the move to lower-gloss paints, in satiny or even matte finishes.

Matte is, in fact, a favorite for automotive designers. The problem is that this ultralow-gloss finish can be extremely difficult to maintain and costly to repair. That has paint industry chemists scrambling to come up with ways to make matte finishes easier to work and live with.

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Researchers are not only exploring colors and finishes but also trying to respond to consumer demands for more environmentally friendly paints. Over the past decade, the industry has moved almost entirely to waterborne compounds with far fewer emissions than petroleum-based solvents.

The next step BASF is looking into would use "repurposed" compounds in the paint formula. At the annual trend show, the company is showing off a formula that uses ultrafine rubber from recycled tires. The concept is still "very experimental," Czornij said, and it's too early to say if it would go into production.

BASF is also showing off experimental paint compounds that could be used to reduce solar load, or the amount of energy a car absorbs on, say, a hot day in Phoenix.

Because of the long lead times required in the auto industry for things such as testing paint durability, this year's trend show focuses on paints and colors targeted at the 2017 model year.

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Along with greens and blues, American car buyers are expected to have an attraction to brown shades over the next several years.

But color choices are typically quite different in other parts of the world.

BASF forecasts that "sophisticated intermediate colors, such as olive-greens and bluish grays" will become increasingly popular in the Asia-Pacific region.

In recession-ravaged Europe, "there is a tendency to move forward rationally and calmly," the paint supplier suggested. It anticipates neutral black and gray will be particularly in-demand, while "creative, courageous colors," such as red and green will gather momentum over the next several years.

By CNBC Contributor Paul A. Eisenstein. Follow him on Twitter @DetroitBureau or at thedetroitbureau.com.

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