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Flat Finish: How You Should Tend To Matte Automotive Paint

It seems like car enthusiasts and automakers all compete to create the shiniest, most reflective paint finishes possible. More recently, however, some have turned to a different type of finish in order to stand out: matte paints. These non-reflective finishes don’t have the shiny, glossy appearance of typical new cars — but on the right vehicle, they can look seriously cool.

The only problem is that matte treatments require special attention when cleaning, otherwise they can be damaged irreparably. To find out how to best maintain the cool look of these expensive paint jobs, we asked BMW, Hyundai, and Mercedes-Benz for tips on cleaning their cars’ matte paint surfaces. We also spoke to Mike Pennington, director of training and consumer relations at car-care company Meguiar’s, for tips on how best to take care of these special finishes.

Who Makes Them?

Matte paint finishes have long been a staple of the auto-show circuit, used to help make a concept car stand out from the glossy crowd. In recent years, mainstream automakers have brought matte colors to the general public. BMW first introduced its Frozen matte paints for various special editions of the M3, and recently made Frozen Bronze Metallic a $3500 option on the new 6 Series Gran Coupe. Hyundai’s new Veloster Turbo can be optioned with matte gray paint for $1000.

Mercedes-Benz has a far more extensive offering of matte paints, which are called Magno and cost $3950. Magno Night Black paint is offered on the G-Class; Magno Platinum is available on the CL-, S-, and G-Class; Magno Cashmere White can be had on the E-, CL-, CLS-, SLK-, S-, and SL-Class; and MagnoAlanite Grey can be optioned on the E-, CL-, CLS-, SLK-, S-, and SL-Class, plus the SLS AMG.

Though there are several ways to create matte paint finishes, most use a different type of clear coat. Whereas regular automotive paint is designed to be shiny, clear, and reflective, the clear coat on matte finishes is hazy and somewhat diffuses the underlying base coat color.Aftermarket suppliers also offer many colors for owners to repaint their cars in a matte finish, and exotic manufacturers like Lamborghini routinely show off custom matte cars. There also are matte vinyl wraps that can be applied over a car’s existing paint, but those require different care methods that we won’t touch here.

What Not To Do

The key point is to avoid allowing scratches or damage to the paint surface. Whereas small scratches or swirl marks in normal shiny paint finishes can be corrected with waxes or other methods, damage in a matte paint job is usually permanent. Attempting to fix even a small scratch can start to change the surface qualities of matte paint, making for an inconsistent appearance.

“Will it become glossy like a traditional paint job? Of course not, but the sheen will begin to change,” Pennington says. “It will stand out like a sore thumb.”

For the same reason, all three aforementioned automakers recommend against automatic car washes. The tough nylon bristles of rotating brushes will scratch and damage the matte paint, so owners should wash by hand every time. Finally, most liquid or paste car waxes should be avoided because they include cleaning agents that will change the luster and sheen on the paint surface. BMW, Mercedes, and Hyundai strongly warn against ever using any kind of polish, wax, or rubbing compounds.

How To Wash And Clean — Safely

Compared to glossy paint finishes, the surfaces of matte cars need to be washed more often and more gently. The most important step is to avoid creating scratches or swirl marks while washing. That means buying high-quality microfiber towels and soft wash mitts, and washing them thoroughly after each car wash. Any type of automotive-specific liquid car wash soap can be used safely. Owners also should use two buckets — one with soapy suds, one with just water — to avoid contamination. After applying soapy water to the car, dousing the wash mitt in the plain water and wringing it out will prevent some grime from being carried back into the clean, soap-filled bucket.

“We preach the two-bucket method on a gloss finish, but it’s almost mandatory on a matte finish,” Pennington says.

To avoid introducing corrosive and scratching brake dust into the paintwork, owners should also use a separate wash mitt for cleaning the wheels, and should do so with a separate bucket of water.Hyundai, meanwhile, recommends beginning each wash session by pressure-washing the car. The nozzle should be at least 10 inches from the surface of the car. After that, Hyundai suggests using the same two-bucket wash method advocated by Meguiar’s.

Both BMW and Mercedes stress that anything that sticks to the paint surface, like dead bugs, tree sap, or bird droppings, should be removed immediately. Because rubbing aggressively can ruin the matte finish, the companies recommend dousing the item in insect remover or car-wash soap before gently rubbing it away. The key, Pennington says, is to avoid excessive friction when trying to remove anything stuck to the paint surface. Water spots should likewise be cleaned off quickly, even if they result from something as trivial as driving past a garden sprinkler.

As waxes and polishes are verboten, Pennington advises adding some UV protection and shine to matte paint with specially formulated spray waxes. Meguiar’s own Ultimate Quick Wax, for instance, doesn’t have any harsh cleaners that will damage matte paints, and it creates a protective coating over the paint surface.

No Warranty Coverage

Pennington, who has worked for Meguiar’s for 23 years, stresses that matte paint finishes aren’t any less durable than regular gloss finishes, but they simply need more attention to keep them looking new. That could dissuade some people from spending a few thousand dollars on the unique paint, unless of course they’ve got a strong desire to stand out from the crowd. He said he believes most people would only opt for such paints on a second or weekend car.

“You’re really speaking to those people who want to identify themselves and want to be a little bit different,” Pennington says.

There’s one final word of warning to customers considering buying a car with a matte paint finish. Both Hyundai and BMW explicitly state that any damage to the paint caused by improper care or environmental factors is excluded from warranty coverage. In other words, you’re on your own if you ruin the paint.

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