By on June 1, 2016


ford raptor. image: ford

Joe writes:

Can you explain black plastic on cars? I saw an Audi Q7 with black plastic all over the bottom, but then a Q5 doesn’t have it. Sometimes the plastic isn’t black but color coded like an Eddie Bauer Ford or something else.

I may just want some back story or history lesson or someone to help me learn to enjoy this crap on my car.

Sajeev answers:

Scientific American has an impressive overview of cellulose, bakelite, etc. development leading to the creation of our modern plastic world. Such relevance naturally leads to a discussion of why plastic bumpers are so awesome.

Pontiac excellently touted the (body color) Endura nose of the ’68 GTO, but the first of the breed is probably the Lotus Elan. The Ford Sierra’s strikingly integrated plastic bumpers were part of my tribute to Uwe Bahnsen, but the Renault 5 was the first everyman’s car with them. It’s not perfectly integrated, but the 5’s shape is pure 1970s “aerodynamic wedge” fantasy.


The benefits of plastic bumpers are both clear and muddy. Today’s cheaper, sleeker, more integrated plastic parts are a significant safety and collision repair improvement, thanks to cars like the wonderfully engineered 1973 Mercedes ESF 22. But they also weigh less (even older implementations with metal reinforcements) in a crucial location: less weight at the corners has less rotational inertia for more poised transitions requiring less torque in handling maneuvers.


So you better love these things. But love them in black plastic? Not as much.

Like my experience with Stevens-Johnson Syndrome after taking a seemingly benign medication, with every car design benefit comes a risky side effect.

The ever-lowering cost of plastics means beancounters can over-reach with abandon. Think of the 2001 Pontiac Aztek, before the modest smattering of extra paint to mask the ugly. Fleet-spec truck grilles aside, a base model vehicle with black bumpers has gone by the wayside: try finding a 1990s Explorer, Accord or Camry on the road with ‘em.

And today’s black (trimmed) bumpers likely imply you own a premium spec motor: the Audi All-Road and Ford Raptor come to mind.

Farbe: Ibisweiss

Oh, the irony. Did this sufficiently “help you learn to enjoy this crap on your car?” Fill in the gaps, Best and Brightest.

[Images: Ford, Audi]

Send your queries to [email protected]com. Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry…but be realistic, and use your make/model specific forums instead of TTAC for more timely advice.

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45 Comments on “Vellum Venom Vignette: A Primer on Black Plastic?...”

  • avatar

    I totally need that ESF-22 front clip on my 450 SEL 6.9.

  • avatar

    Sajeeve, you left out the black cladding along the rocker panels, as shown in the Mercedes image at the top of the article and seen on many cars that try to claim minimal off-road cred. That cladding, unlike the bumpers, is essentially pickup truck bed-liner material (or sometimes just a vinyl overlay) to reduce dings and scrapes from stones thrown up by the tires or when you get just a little too close to the coarser stone along the edge of the “unimproved” road. The Mythbusters crew on the Discovery Channel demonstrated how the bed liner material absorbed impacts better than the bare metal and minimized the effects of harder hits. A side benefit, of course, comes as a reduced risk of rust along those panels as road salt and other corrosives can’t get into the metal as easily, helping to extend the life of the car’s body.

  • avatar

    My issue with the black plastic trim/cladding/whatever you want to call it has to due with the durability of the color itself. You buy that car with the black trim that looks oh so sexy….fast forward 2 years and it has already faded to and uneven gray clearly showing all of the polymer flow lines from the molding process. All of the auto manufacturers are equipping the exterior of their products with a material they know does not provide color stability under UV light conditions, that being sunlight; in addition the black plastic (without the benefit of paint protection) has a tendency to become brittle over time leading to breakage and an overall haggard appearance.

    A great example of this if the Chevy Avalanche and the issues owners had with those “trucks” within just 2-3 years after purchase.

    If you want black exterior trim, it needs to be a painted surface using the appropriately durable paint.

    • 0 avatar

      My wife’s 2005 MINI has no such issues. The black trim pieces look great to this day.

      • 0 avatar

        Mini’s are just as susceptible as the rest. It’s all in the exposure (or lack thereof) to direct sunlight. Just Google “mini cooper faded black plastic” – plenty of hits from the forum. I’ve observed plenty in the wild.

        Heck, there’s even a black plastic rejuvenation product (other than Mothers Back to Black) that was invented by a Mini enthusiast for the Mini owner community, it’s called Black Wow ( – yes, that’s a safe URL).

  • avatar

    sometimes, the specific plastic used can drive the decision to leave them unpainted. plastics like polypropylene and polyethylene (used extensively for auto parts and trim) are extremely solvent-resistant and getting paint to adhere to them is an absolute b!tch. better to just give them a decent texture/grain and color, and just leave them unpainted.

    Just don’t skimp on the UV protection additives, or you get something like how the grille on every 2001-2006 Chrysler Sebring turned light gray in a couple of years.

    • 0 avatar

      I hear from suppliers that they hit it with a solvent based blocker primer consisting of chlorinated polypropylene with some organics.

      That’s gotta suck to breathe in a booth.

      The body shop favorite, Bumper and Cladding Coat Adhesion Primer, is a solvent based elastomeric primer. I wonder if that’s the same sh1t?

  • avatar

    I used to live in Paris. Funny thing about parking in Paris:

    i) never use your parking brake or leave the car in gear on a flat surface; and
    ii) it is acceptable to nudge other cars to squeeze into a parking spot (see (i) above).

    Hence, even in 2003-04 when I lived there, it was common to see a top-spec Audi with its tiny euro-spec bumpers, wedged into a spot that would normally fit a Focus or other C-segment car.

    Black unpainted bumpers are not a way of life over there, they are a necessity to ensure that your car does not look like crap after 2 weeks of ownership!

    • 0 avatar

      A few years back, I was living in Pittsburgh, PA and decided to replace my focus with a used BMW X3. Because I did a fair amount of parallel parking… I knew the bumpers were going to get beat up (the focus looked worse for wear after a few years of this). I intentionally sought out a 2005 X3 just so I could get the unpainted bumpers because I knew the painted bumpers on the 2006 onwards models would get beat up and look like crap. Now I’m on the gulf coast of Florida and drive a 1 series convertible. Parallel parking isn’t really a “thing” here.

  • avatar

    My favorites will always be the chrome 5-mph battering rams on my Chevy Celebrity. They saved the butt of an inexperienced 16 year old a few times.

    I will give the painted plastic bumpers on my Highlander credit for being tough. I tapped someone with the front of mine (long story) and although one of the “plugs” popped out the bumper seems to be none the worse for wear.

  • avatar

    I have noticed that most CUVs use black trim as a way to make it appear ad if they have a modicum of ground clearance. They look like they sit higher because the bottom of the vehicle is black like the road or something. See new Toyota rav4, new jeep Cherokee, etc etc… Its painfully noticeable from behind these vehicles.

    • 0 avatar

      Yes, phony ground clearance and to reduce slab-sidedness. Biggest offender is probably the Ford Escape. Body-color rocker panels make it look like a lifted minivan (don’t order your Escape in black).

    • 0 avatar
      bumpy ii

      A related phenomenon is the use of black plastic to provide negative areas intended to disguise how tall vehicle bodies are these days. The back of the Camaro is a prime example: lots of black plastic to preserve the proportions of the 1967 homage in the painted areas.

  • avatar

    Nice wrietup, Sajeev.

    On a parallel track, I notice now that the black anodized aluminum trim on most of the 1996-2003 or so Mercedes E-class and W140 S-class is beginning to fade to light brown.

    I’ve spent my entire working life in the electronics manufacturing business, and we all knew that black anodized aluminum was NOT something you wanted exposed to constant sunlight.

    Either Benz knew and didn’t care, or they just didn’t know.

    UV light is a bear, we had the same experience with powder coat paint in its early years. At manufacturing plant where I worked, the bumpers and grille of our International delivery box truck got a new coat of silver powder looked great for a couple of years, then turned to some ugly bilious green in the sun.

    They’ve made great strides in powder paint since then, with plastics not so much.

  • avatar
    its me Dave

    I seem to remember a 70-80’s fad of blacking out chrome to get a cool “Euro” look.

  • avatar

    ” a base model vehicle with black bumpers has gone by the wayside:”

    I still see a lot of base model Pickups (Ford and dodge) trucks with black plastic front bumpers, as well as commercial style vans (Dodge ProMaster for example). Also, Rav4 uses black plastic rear bumpers…

    Haven’t seen any on standard passenger cars though.

  • avatar

    “sleeker, more integrated plastic parts are a significant safety and collision repair improvement”

    Oh really? Have you priced out one of those elaborate bumper covers that wrap around onto the fenders? Whereas before, a black stripe on the bumper would get scratched, today a crack on that fancy airflow controlling plastic cover can set you back about $1500. For each time you tap a pole or something. How is that a safety improvement? How is that a collision repair improvement?

    The bumper with black you are showing on the Audi is not actually bumper but is the skirt part. The bumper, i.e. the part that suffers in an impact, is above it, shiny in matching car color. That piece will cost $1500-2000 to replace.

    This article is way out of whack.

    • 0 avatar


      Give me chrome plated steel bumpers with black rubber rub strips. Worst thing that happens is the rubber gets scuffed. 5 minutes with black shoe polish and it looks new again.

      With the new ones, all it takes is a light tap of a pole and you have unsightly scars, or worse, a broken “bumper cover” which costs thousands to replace (not possible to repair).

    • 0 avatar

      You have good points, but black plastic rub strips only hide damage at low speeds and they are about as tacky as they get. This is coming from someone with several in his garage. Tap a pole or something? How much was it to fix that dent behind the rub strip?

      Show me a metal bumper as sleek as a modern plastic bumper (i.e. not the shock absorber packed battering rams from the 70s-80s) that costs nothing to repair after a 5mph impact and I’ll amend this article.

      • 0 avatar

        You think modern plastic bumpers are slick. I think they are hideous. Just looked at a Lexus one. Wow. So we disagree. I guess I could show you the plastic bumper cover on my Volvo 240, it’s pretty elegant with the shiny plastic spoiler below it. Or the rubber strip just at the right place on the 3-series BMW about 2-3 generations ago. That was the impact point that did not result in shiny surface scratches.

        In any case, it’s a long term ploy not dissimilar to Gillette giving up the shaving kits so that people buy their blades. A bumper is supposed to absorb some impacts. A shiny plastic bumper that does not even have the “bumper” part anymore (Ford and Huinday front bumpers that incorporate the grille) is not therefore a bumper but a money-making opportunity for the one who owns the molds to manufacture the replacements. And the beauty here is that it will take a whole lot of money to build a comparable mold in the aftermarket.

        • 0 avatar

          I agree with just about all of that. Especially the BMW E46 bumpers.

          That said, my disagreement also hinges on handling. Just look at the effort someone put into this Caddy to shave weight off the bumpers to make it handle more like a newer car.

          EDIT: the Gillette obsolescence counterpoint doesn’t work that well, because lightweight bumpers can make a car turn with more precision.

          • 0 avatar

            You know how I identify insurance fraud in New York City? I look for PA or NJ plates with pitted and scratched up bumpers. Those cars live in NYC while paying PA/NJ insurance rates, and fight the bumper parking battle every night. Do you think they care about the turning precision? I say they don’t.

          • 0 avatar

            Handling on open roads, not turning in a crowded urban area. Big difference.

  • avatar

    My Volvo XC70 has them and they’re great. I can’t imagine the chips and pitting I would otherwise have.

  • avatar

    Pfft. On the contrary!

    My poverty-spec’d 99 XJ Cherokee in its rather brilliant arctic white (I don’t know the proper name of the white and I ain’t Googlin’ it), clad with black plastic trim, would clean up rather nicely!

    A little Meguiar’s Back-to-Black rubbed down on the fenders would make them such a clean, shiny, glossy black (although it would become a flat, dull gray after a week or so after getting a rub down… :/). But paired up with that bright white paint job (and black grill and black tinted windows)…. MAAAAAN. Clean. :) Which, might I add is totally appropriate prior to running it through a mud bog, lol.

  • avatar

    When I had my ’95 Altima in total black, the bumper covers needed a good cleaning with Spic’N’Span. They still weren’t as shiny as the waxed paint, so I hit them with clear gloss lacquer. The guy who bought the car was impressed.

  • avatar

    Black bumpers & side cladding usually spells euro-diesel.

    I swear good plastics place on commercial door mirrors. Non-power, no flashers plastic pop out mirror lenses. Those get swiped – no damage. Just pop the lenses back in. On your way. No pricey on a wire hanger…

  • avatar

    I just replaced the black plastic windshield cowl on my 3. After 13 years outside, it had rotted, gone from Black to Grey-ish and looked like a ripped out piece of notebook paper with ragged edges.

    The new one slotted in easily. I wondered why, though that this piece of plastic faded and rotted, where other bits on the car are still pliant and mostly black. There is a wide quality variance, even on this one vehicle.

    Future car collectors are gonna have a huge problem with rotting plastic. The metal cars up to the 70’s or so don’t spontaneously fall apart. At this point, most of my problems involve rotted hoses or dead plastic bits…at this point, I get extras of everything, because about half of the plastic bits have lost all their softness and shatter when moved. I’m sure there is a technical term for this (!)

    My 08 Acura has grey plastic which is working on going white, along with clear headlight covers working on going grey. I hit the car with silicone based stuff which fixes both problems..but I have to keep on it.

    Oh, and to the poster who mentioned polite nudging, you used to be able to do this in the age of chrome bumper, but not any more….my 73 Nova occasionally made space as needed.

  • avatar

    There is small, but growing aftermarket for various bumper guards. Small tastefully unobtrusive bumper guards in color or black rubber that attach to the front corners or to the rear of cars. Larger bumper guards, both front and rear, that look like you’ve strapped a black rubber floor mat to the back of your car.

    (These are not to be confused with bumper guards that fit to the top of rear bumpers that are intended to protect the paint from being scraped by items being loaded into the trunk or cargo area.)

    There’s also the big black rubber “BumpShox” license plate frame/bumper guard. Finaly, if you have a truck, SUV or crossover you can get a “Grill Guard.”

  • avatar

    A ‘heat gun’ brings the black back. The bed rail ‘cladding’ on my F-150 had turned a hideous, light grey with ribbing stripes. Very good results, like new.

  • avatar

    I DD a 2006 CRV and it’s surrounded with black plastic, great for when the Golden Gate divider was askew couldn’t avoid without hitting someone else and bumped it, cheap to fix.

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