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Daniel Cappellazzo for The New York Times
IN COLOR  Jack Empson and Laurie Reiter had to have their new Mini Cooper in yellow. Red, they decided, was just too ordinary.


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The Hot Color for Cool Cars? Yellow


Published: October 29, 2004

DALE EARNHARDT JR.'S Corvette. Nicolas Cage's Lamborghini. Liz Claiborne's Porsche. Eric Clapton's Ferrari. The Pagani Zonda S7.3 on the cover of this month's Robb Report (one of the magazine's "10 new luxuries" for 2005, it's priced at about $300,000). They're all quintessential trophy cars sporty, assertive and flamboyant.

And they're all yellow.

Forget about that little red sports car. Yellow shouts louder and, increasingly, it's the color of choice for the driver who wants to make an unmistakable statement on the road. Yellow is muscling in not only for high-performance cars, but on the shiny surfaces of compacts and sporty pickups the hot models that young car buyers like to deck out with cladding and chrome.

Even the names catch the eye. Ford brought out Screaming Yellow for its 2004 Mustang. Hyundai showcased a concept car, the two-door HCD-8, earlier this year in Ballistic Yellow. Nissan has introduced Ultra Yellow for its 350Z coupe for 2005. The Porsche Boxster's egg-yolk-toned option is called Speed Yellow.

Ron Tonkin, the owner of 14 automobile dealerships in Portland, Ore., said he had seen yellow sales grow over the last year, particularly in sports cars.

Two kinds of people buy it, he said: "One, the young, and two, the young at heart." Somewhere in there is Mr. Tonkin himself. Earlier this year, he bought a yellow Ferrari, and his wife bought a yellow Maserati. "It seems to fit the sporty image," he said.

In 2003, yellow showed up as a top-10 car color for the first time in North America since 1992, popping into the lineup in the sport/compact category, according to DuPont Automotive. The company, which makes automotive paint, has tracked the most popular colors for 52 years.

No one claims yellow is likely to overtake silver, the leading car color in the United States, or to edge out subdued stalwarts like the whites and tans that clog the highways. But more and more, it is grabbing the role that red used to play in the automotive world.

Yellow is "a hot color, a fast color," said Quinton Q. Dodson, sales manager of West Coast Customs, a car customizer in Los Angeles. He sees it most, he said, in import tuner cars the kind favored by fans of "The Fast and the Furious."

"It's for someone who's daring and wants to be noticed," said Toby Ristau, manager of J. C. Whitney, an aftermarket parts store in LaSalle, Ill. The vehicle for these people, he said, "used to be a red car."

"These are not shy and retiring vehicles," said Christopher Webb, exterior color and trend designer for General Motors, assessing the role of yellow as a Corvette color. "They're for the owner who likes everyone to know they're driving a Corvette."

Red, once the shocker that advertised this kind of personality, has become common, even sedate. It is still popular in sports cars, but it is no longer a signature for those who want to rise above the mainstream. In the DuPont survey, medium red ranked sixth for full-size and luxury cars.

Laurie Reiter, 49, an ultrasound technician from Youngstown, N.Y., is from the school of car buyers who thrive on attention. She considered red when she was buying a 2003 Mini Cooper, but decided it was too common. As she browsed the showroom, "Liquid Yellow" jumped out as the perfect fit.

"People just buy cars for transportation," she said. "But there are still a few of us who really love our cars."

When she and her husband, Jack Empson, also 49, drive their Mini to nearby Niagara Falls, they sometimes feel like the main attraction. "People turn around and stare at us," Mr. Empson said, "after they came hundreds of miles to see the falls."

AUTOMAKERS and dealers also appreciate the power of yellow.

"That's a real impulse color," said Mike Childs, the operations manager of the Dayton Auto Center in Dayton, N.J. When the dealership (which sells about one yellow vehicle a month) recently put out a yellow Dodge Ram Rumble Bee for display, he said, "one guy literally was not planning on buying anything, and drove in and said, `I have to have that truck.' "

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It wasn't always this way. When Steve Levine set out to buy a used Ferrari three years ago, he was ahead of the curve. His one requirement was that the Ferrari be bright yellow, and at first all he found was frustration.

"I searched the whole country for yellow it was not easy to find," he said. "They were all red." And red, of course "gets boring."

Mr. Levine, a real estate agent from Northboro, Mass., finally found a 1994 model now nicknamed "Mid-Life Crisis" in Scranton, Pa. "Yellow just screams," he said. "I love yellow."

It might be a good sign for everyone that other drivers are now buying into his philosophy at least according to the analysis of Terrence Cressy, a marketing manager at DuPont. He called yellow "a representation of fun, spirit, and a certain sense of optimism that's started to creep back."

Manufacturers have taken to yellow, too, using it in promotional materials and when introducing new models.

"Carmakers are needing to redefine their brands," said Lorene Boettcher, a global design and color marketing manager at PPG Industries, a paint manufacturer. "There's no better way to do it than with a bright yellow."

And Mr. Cressy says yellow complements the new, hard-edged car designs: "It makes that shape pop."

The more distinctive the car, the better yellow works to define it. Hummer, an aggressive car if there ever was one, used a statement-making yellow two years ago when it introduced the H2. The reasoning: "Boldness is a Hummer trait, so why not just go for it," said David Caldwell, a spokesman for the brand.

Aside from its powerful psychological messages, yellow's flashiness can also have practical effects. Randy Chase, 46, a product designer from San Diego, picked saffron yellow for his 2005 Lotus Elise, which he bought in August, partly because the car sat so low to the ground. "I didn't want to get run over," he said. "I thought yellow would stand out more."

He hasn't had any problems standing out so far. In the first month that he owned the car, he was pulled over twice by police officers but not for speeding. They only wanted to ask him about the car. "It screams out for attention a little more than I expected," Mr. Chase said. "It's hard to drive down the street without people yelling at you."

The color's power seems to extend to the insect world or so some owners say. Steve Shrader, 28, of Charlotte, N.C., a fan of yellow Mustangs and the founder of a club called the Yellow Mustang Registry, recalls being in a yellow caravan stuck in traffic when a cloud of gnats descended. "They were coming in the windows," he said. "They were all over the dash and all over us, but there were no bugs on the blue and black and silver cars."

Gnats are probably not the reason, however, that some auto models are not showing up in yellow at all notably the conventional sedans.

The color is great for a Dodge Viper, said Mr. Dodson, the West Coast Customs manager; his shop recently did one in yellow and black. But there are models he doesn't expect to see it on.

Yellow, he said, "would make a Mercedes-Benz look like a taxicab."