50 Shades of “eh?” – car paint types explained

It’s one of the biggest decisions you’ll be asked to make about one of your most expensive purchases – what colour should you choose for your new car? After all, some manufacturers will sell you a coat of paint that costs as much as an entire car. But it’s not just about the shade itself. These days there’s a plethora of paint finish options available, and the choice can be a bit bewildering. To help clear things up, we’re looking at what each special finish means, along with pros and cons. Once you’re done, read our best car paint colours guide for some bright inspiration! Chose your ideal new car in our car chooser then put it in our carwow configurator to see how much you could save.

Volkswagen Polo in Mayan Blue – a solid colour

Solid paint

Almost all cars  – other than the most expensive ones – are available in a no-cost basic, solid colour. The most common options are white, red, blue or black, and chances are that is a paint colour doesn’t add to the cost of your car, then it’s a solid, non-metallic paint. In basic form, the solid paint is a single application of the colour, followed by a lacquer coat (called a clear coat) above it to protect the paint from chips, scratches and the weather. Many manufacturers now use what’s called “two-pack” paint, in which the acrylic paint is mixed with an isocyanate hardening agent to make a kind of coloured superglue, and removes the need for a separate clear coat. Solid colours work brilliantly for a completely even single-shade finish. They’re inexpensive too and come with several maintenance benefits. Minor stone chips can be repaired with a touch-up pen of the same colour, available for not a great deal of money from your local large motoring store. More major thwacks can be sorted at a body shop for very little outlay and, since two-pack paint cures with heat, not a lot of time – spray it on and put it under some heat lamps and you’ll have a durable finish in an hour or so. You can even do it at home with a paint compressor, though you’ll need to take care not to inhale the mist. However, because they’re cheap and quickly applied, a lot of solid colours show up “orange peel” paint finishes on close inspection – and since they tend to be limited to the white, red, blue and black shades, a little boring.

A 2015 Audi Q5 in metallic blue


Metallic paints are effectively the same as solid paints, only with a small quantity of powdered metal added. The size and type of metal added varies depending on manufacturer choices, but it’s commonly about 1 part in 50 of aluminium powder. Although it’s not that much more expensive to produce and shouldn’t make a great deal of difference when applied to a small car (it’s a little less practical to apply to a coach, for example), many manufacturers charge a premium of around £250 or more for an upgrade from solid to metallic. This price increase is usually put down to the need for multiple coats of both paint and lacquer. The metal particles in the paint pick up and reflect more incident light that the basic paint colours, giving your car a much more appealing shine than with solid colours – so long as you keep it clean! It will also hide very minor damage from a distance much more effectively than solid paint. However, it’s much harder to get metallic paint to match properly, making it far more difficult to repair when damaged – even authorised body shops can’t guarantee a match – and it’ll show up swirl marks from inexpert polishing much more readily.



Pearlescent paints replace the metal particles with ceramic crystals (often called “mica”) that don’t just reflect light but refract it too, splitting it into different colours by allowing some light in and slowing it down as it passes through. This gives the paint not just a sparkle, but a deep colour that can vary depending on how you look at it, making for interesting effects where the car’s bodywork creases or changes direction. In direct sunlight, pearlescent paint knocks spots off metallic finishes. Many cars in Audi’s range are offered in pearlescent colours and similar metallic shades – compare one of their pearl black cars with a metallic black one in real life, and you’ll see a real difference in the depth and shimmer. Unlike metallic paint, these particles can be quite pricey – after all, something with a chemical formula like NaMg3AlSi3O10F2 just doesn’t sound cheap – and a pearlescent finish can significantly ramp up costs. Even the cheapest pearl finishes cost more than £500 and most will set you back between £1,000 and £2,000, depending on the car. Many of the same things said about metallic paint’s shortcomings apply here too – it’s fantastic to look at, but really very expensive and time consuming to repair damage.

matte finishes

It’s not common to see matte finishes, but some niche vehicles are available in a variety of matte colours, usually grey or black. Sometimes this is a more reflective satin or silk finish than true matte, but the principles are roughly the same. There are a number of ways its non-shiny look can be achieved, but in most cases it’s the same as regular solid paint, with either a high epoxy content primer coat, a high PVC content in the paint coat itself or a flattening agent in the clear lacquer coat to achieve the dull effect. Matte is bit divisive, with many likening it to the sort of flat finish you got on 1930s hot rods, but its appearance on high end motors does carry a certain hint of wealth with it – and with good reason. When BMW sold the M3 with a matte finish, the car cost £3,000 more – it’s a lot trickier to apply than a regular paint, because you can’t buff out any imperfections. Maintenance and repair is quite an issue on matte cars too – the aforementioned M3 came with a warranty waiver that required owners to take special measures to care for their paint. If you start polishing a matte paint using a normal abrasive polish then you could end up with gloss patches on your car.

Ford Fiesta in Candy Blue, a special paint with a tinted clearcoat

Special paints – an excuse to charge more?

Some prestige and sports car manufacturers offer special paint finishes which change colour or seem even more lustrous – the Ford Fiesta is a cheap example of such a car, or you could go for the £100,000 Mercedes AMG GT – that signature shade of yellow costs £10,000. These special paints are created by a combination of effects too numerous to categorise individually, but largely consisting of layering paints on top of each other to provide an even more dramatic effect than pearlescent paint alone. It’s worth a note of caution that though this effect is quite cool, it’s hard to achieve the same kind of shine that you get with metallic or pearlescent paint and it goes without saying that it’s both phenomenally expensive to buy and to repair. If you think BMW’s Pure Silver is expensive at £6,000, wait until you try the Liquid Metal of the Porsche 918, at an eye-blistering £36,000. Still, it could be worse. If you buy a Bugatti Veyron and want a carbon fibre finish you’d pay nearly £200,000 for the privilege of not having any paint.

What next?

Head over to our best paint colours to buy guide if you’re looking for inspiration for your next car. Visit our deals page to see our latest discounts or check out our car chooser for help picking your next car. Once you’ve picked, put the car in our carwow configurator to see how much carwow could help you save.