Metallic vs Pearl Car Paint: The Difference Explained


Metallic and pearlescent paint finishes on cars have become very popular and offer a more premium finish than solid flat colors. However, metallic and pearl finishes are often confused despite their being some fundamental differences between them. In this article I’ll directly compare metallic and pearlescent paint so you can decide which is the best option for your vehicle.

The Quick Answer

Metallic car paint uses aluminium powder whereas pearl finishes use ceramic crystals. This causes pearlescent paint to look shimmery and iridescent so the color changes slightly from different angles, whereas metallic paint looks look colder, crisper, and more glittery under direct light.

Metallic PaintPearl Paint
Uses aluminium powderUses ceramic crystals
Looks colder and more glitteryLooks warmer and more shimmery
Common colors are black, grey, silver, red and blueCommon colors are white, grey, silver and black
Costs approximately $500-$750 in the USACosts approximately $500-$750 in the USA
Costs approximately £575-£900 in the UKCosts approximately £575-£950 in the UK
Metallic vs pearlescent car paint finishes

Metallic Paint

Metallic paint offers excellent depth of color and shine and appears glittery under direct light. The metallic finish is created by mixing aluminium powder in with the paint. These metal particles reflect the light and make the car look glossier. Check out this image below where you can see the glitter effect of metallic paintwork on this BMW.

Metallic paint jobs typically cost upwards of £500 in the UK and $750 in the USA as an optional extra with most manufacturers offering at least 5 metallic shades on the majority of their vehicles. The most common metallic colors are red, blue, grey and black but it is possible to get a multitude of other colors depending on the brand.

Pearlescent Paint

Pearlescent paint, also known as pearl or mica, looks iridescent under bright light which means the colors appear to change when seen from different angles. This pearl effect is created by mixing ceramic crystals (mica) into the paint.

Pearlescent paint makes the car look like it is glowing more than metallic paint. Instead of a colder glittery effect you get with a metallic finish, pearl finishes offer a warmer sheen. Check out this image below to see a pearl white finish. If you look at the areas where the light is directly hitting the paint, you can see the pearl effect at its best.

Pearlescent finishes are rarer than metallic finishes and most manufacturers will only offer 1 or 2 pearlescent finish options, if any. The most common pearlescent colors are white, grey and black but it is possible to get other colors with the finish. Typically you can expect to pay upwards of £500 in the UK and $750 for this option over a standard solid color.

Comparing Pearl and Metallic Finishes

Now we’ve been through the basics of pearlescent and metallic finishes, let’s compare them directly in the following categories:

  • Appearance
  • Resprays and Color Matching
  • Hiding Dust and Dirt
  • Highlighting Swirls and Scratches
  • Price

Appearance

Metallic and pearlescent paint finishes can be hard to tell apart as they both have an additive in the paint mixture to give them a unique effect compared to solid paint which looks flat.

Metallic paints offer a colder shine whereas pearlescent paints offer a warmer glow. Both have a glittery effect due to the additives in the paint, however the result is different due to the materials used.

Metallic paints uses aluminium powder to create the glittery effect, whereas pearlescent paints use ceramic crystals. Unlike metallic finishes, pearlescent finishes look iridescent which means the colors look different from different angles.

Metallic (left) vs pearl (right) car paint

Resprays and Color Matching

Both metallic and pearlescent paints can cause some difficulty during the color matching process if a panel needs respraying compared to solid paints which can sometimes incur an additional cost.

Metallic paint is arguably slightly easier to deal with when respraying because it is more common. If the specific color is fairly common and still in production, it shouldn’t cause too much issue. Pearlescent paints are a bit rarer so color matching is usually required.

Swirl Marks and Scratches

Both metallic and pearlescent finishes are able to mask light imperfections in the paintwork slightly more than solid finishes. These imperfections are commonly referred to as swirl marks and can occur from improper wash technique, for example by using brushes and sponges instead of microfiber wash mitts.

Check out my guide to washing a car without causing scratches if you want to learn how to look after your car’s finish properly.

In terms of which finish shows these imperfections more obviously, there isn’t really a difference between the two. Although they are both slightly better at masking marks compared to solid paints, they will still show them clearly in direct sunlight so it is essential that the car is washed using the proper technique.

Hiding Dirt and Dust

Metallic and pearl finishes show dirt and dirt equally well. Since they both offer high levels of gloss and depth of color, it can be quite noticeable when the paint gathers dirt as it quickly dulls the finish.

I personally own a red car with metallic paint and wash it weekly to ensure that the finish always looks as shiny as possible. It’s not essential to wash the car this frequently, but I would advise washing it at least months to ensure the paintwork is kept in good condition. Applying a wax or sealant will also help keep the car cleaner and enhance the finish of the paintwork.

Price

With most car manufacturers, pearl and metallic finishes are an optional extra. There usually isn’t any difference in price between these finishes, although there are some exceptions when the particular color is in demand. For example, Mazda charges extra for their “soul red crystal metallic” compared to the rest of their metallic and pearlescent colors. Other exceptions include Toyota which charge extra for pearlescent paint.

Here is a table showing some popular car manufacturers and the average charge for metallic and pearlescent paint finishes.

USA Prices
ManufacturerMetallic PaintPearlescent Paint
Audi$595$595
BMW$0-$1950$0-$1950
Mercedes-Benz$750-$1750$750
Ford$395-$595$395-$595
Toyota$425$425
Average cost of metallic and pearlescent car paint finishes in the USA
UK Prices
ManufacturerMetallic PaintPearlescent Paint
Audi£575-£750£575-£750
BMW£595-£795£595-£795
Mercedes-Benz£625-£880£625-£880
Ford£525-£850£525-£850
Toyota£590-£730£940-£965
Average cost of metallic and pearlescent car paint finishes in the UK

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Heather

I first became interested in car detailing around 3 years ago and learnt all the main techniques on my very first car. I spend a lot of time detailing my current car, and trying to keep my family's cars looking presentable too!

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