Tired of being monochromatic? Two-tone cars stage a comeback

Chris Woodyard
2019 Toyota RAV4 XSE HV
Source: Toyota

Maybe it's a sign of the times and a strong economy. Or maybe it's a sign that people are just tired of plain, monochromatic cars.

Whatever the reason, automakers are finally putting an added dash of color in the looks of some of their latest models, giving them fancy two-tone paint jobs.

Toyota introduced the next version of the RAV4, a compact that was the nation's most popular SUV last year, at the New York Auto Show last week with a contrasting roof color — white or black — depending on the version. Hyundai's Genesis followed up with a stunning concept car that included a startling choice of metallic gray on the body with a large swatch of glossy black down the hood.

They join other two-tones already on the market from Land Rover, Volvo and the automaker best known for leading the modern version of the trend more than a decade ago, Mini.

In an age when many people may drive the same model of vehicle, custom-looking paint schemes allow for more personalization.

"Not everyone wants to drive the same car as their neighbor," said Stephanie Brinley, analyst for IHS Markit. "People still want something that feels special."

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The trend is made feasible by automotive factories where robotic painting makes it easier to color cars in ways that might not have been as possible in the past, said Rebecca Lindland, an analyst for Kelley Blue Book. Plus the results are eye-catching.

"It emphasizes customization," Lindland said after viewing Genesis' gray-and-black Essentia sports-car concept at the auto show, which is open to the public through Sunday. "It has a custom look but not a custom price," she said of two-tone cars.

Two-tone paint jobs are associated with the 1950s, when pastels were popular and the boomerang-shaped designs of the era and chrome striping were on full display on the sides of cars. But the look disappeared in the 1960s and 1970s — along with white-wall tires — as cars got lower and sleeker.

These days, the two-tone look is generally restricted to having a roof that's a different color than a car's body. BMW got the party rolling when it brought its British icon Mini to the U.S., giving buyers a choice of roof colors including wild designs such as a Union Jack decal.

In the case of RAV4, the decision to go with white or black roofs on the outdoorsy Adventure and hybrid versions reflect the compact SUV's youthful buyer profile. Buyers were asking for more color, said Jack Hollis, head of the Toyota division introducing the car.

"It's adding extra personality," he said. "We see it as a fun way to add more style."

In the case of Essentia, Genesis design director Luc Donckerwolke acknowledges that he didn't choose a common paint scheme for a concept car by going two-tone. But, he points out, "we don't dress in a monochromatic way" so why should cars be any different?