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Wash your car like a pro

MSN Autos 10/7/2014 Mike Meredith
© MSN Autos

© slobo/Getty Images

Your car has many enemies — some visible, some not. From bird droppings and dead bugs to tree sap and invisible industrial emissions in the air, your vehicle is constantly exposed to myriad environmental elements that can damage its finish. Even basic road grime can damage your car, and the longer offensive contaminants are left on your vehicle, the greater the damage they inflict upon both the car and ultimately its long-term value.

Father and son washing car© Fuse/Getty Images Father and son washing car

So what's the simplest thing people can do to help maintain their car's value over time? Wash it, but wash it the right way. "Keep all of your vehicle's surfaces — the paint, trim, glass and wheels — clean," says Richard Griot of car-care company Griot's Garage.

© Griot's Garage


© Meguiar's

Perception is reality

© Meguiar's

© Griot's Garage

The reality is that people often value material items based on the way they look. According to the folks at Kelley Blue Book, aesthetics is one of the top considerations when a person buys a car. If you want your car to bring top dollar when you're ready to sell it, keep it looking its best. A vehicle in pristine condition will attract attention and be worth more than another vehicle that is in similar mechanical condition but has had the appearance neglected.


If you don't currently clean your car regularly — at least twice a month — it's not too late to change your ways. Granted, the quickest and easiest way to a sparkling-clean car inside and out is via a local detail shop. But at $75 to $300 or more per visit, using a professional detailer twice a month can get rather pricey.

Fortunately, there are plenty of do-it-yourself products on the market to clean your car at home, saving time and money. Taking things a bit further, Mike Pennington, director of training for Meguiar's — a leading producer of car-care products — says you should wash your car once a week. "Your car is constantly bombarded with contaminants such as tree sap, mist and bird droppings," Pennington says. "If the contaminants are not removed quickly, they can bond to the paint and even etch the paint."

Whether you're motivated to wash your car once a week, twice a month or at some interval other than annually, we've compiled advice from car-care professionals on how to properly clean and care for your automobile. Follow these guidelines and your ride will look like you have a detailer on weekly retainer.

The basic wash

Before breaking out the buckets and sponges, park your vehicle in a shaded spot — preferably in a gravel or grassy area where water can seep into the ground, rather than on pavement that causes rapid runoff. Direct sunlight causes surfaces to dry quickly, leaving residue and unwanted streaks in the finish.

Now you're ready to get busy. You'll need a steady supply of water, a hose with a spray nozzle, and a soft, dirt-free cloth, wash mitt or boar's hair brush. Most car-care experts recommend a microfiber wash mitt or towel to minimize scratching, but you must keep it clean or the embedded dirt particles will scratch the surface. A separate soft-bristle brush is good for cleaning wheels.

Most importantly, you need a proper car-wash soap. Don't make the mistake of using dishwashing soap or a household cleaner on your car; these contain harsh detergents that can strip wax and damage paint. Car-wash products are designed to lift and remove dirt from a car's surface — not grease from dishes.

Top-down, not bottom-up

Most car-care experts recommend you start washing at the top of a vehicle and work your way down, focusing on one section at a time. "Washing your vehicle from the top down reduces the chance of scratching the finish" says Griot's Garage President Mark Greene. "By washing from the top down and frequently rinsing your wash mitt, sponge or brush, you greatly reduce the possibility of contaminants becoming embedded in your cleaning tools and creating scratches and swirl marks," he says.

Other professionals agree: "The bottom of your car, particularly behind the wheel wells, traditionally has heavier accumulations of dirt particles," Pennington says. Washing from the top down minimizes the risk of dirt from the lower sections of the car being dragged across upper surfaces and causing damage.

Here's the best game plan:

1. Rinse the entire car with water to remove loose dirt.

2. Wash and rinse the vehicle one section at a time — working from top to bottom — to prevent a section from drying too quickly and leaving deposits or residue.

3. Don't scrub aggressively. Instead, rub the car's surface gently to loosen dirt. Aggressive rubbing can grind dirt into the finish, leaving scratches and swirls.

4. Rinse the wash mitt or sponge often to prevent accumulated dirt from scratching the paint.

5. After the final rinse, wipe the excess water from the vehicle's surface to prevent water spotting. A microfiber towel or a high-quality chamois is best. Keep the towel or chamois clean to help prevent scratching, and wipe the vehicle lightly to soak up water without abrading the vehicle's finish.

Note: If you live in a climate where sand or salt is used on the road surface, be sure to rinse inside the wheel wells, paying special attention to the lower part of the fender, where salt and sand may have accumulated.

Wheels and tires

One of the most dramatic ways to improve your vehicle's appearance is by keeping the wheels and tires clean. It's just as important to use the right wheel cleaner as it is to use the right car-wash soap. Most wheels on today's cars have a clear-coat or protective finish that can be damaged by harsh chemicals. Choose a wheel cleaner safe for all wheels or, in a pinch, use a fresh bucket of car-wash soap. Some high-gloss or machined wheels may require a special cleaner or polish, so be sure to use the right kind for your car's wheels. Make sure wheels and brakes are cool before washing. Cold water may damage hot brake discs, and wheel cleaner may dry too quickly.

After washing the wheels, the tires may also need extra attention with rubber cleaner. Then apply a tire dressing. A wide variety of tire dressings is available, from a satin finish to a glossy wet look.

Wax on, wax off

Most late-model vehicles roll out of the factory wearing some type of clear-coat finish that may contain stabilizers, ultraviolet-light blockers and UV light absorbers that help keep a vehicle's paint looking new longer. While they do provide great protection, clear coats are not a panacea. "Clear-coats can give drivers a false sense of security by appearing to protect the underlying base coat," says said Mike Schultz, senior vice president of product development for Turtle Wax Inc. "They are fragile and susceptible to scratches, abrasions and swirls that make the paint look dull."

Waxing your vehicle will help remove paint oxidation and surface dirt, while adding a layer of protection against grease and grime. Wax will also improve or remove minor damage such as surface scratches or light contaminants and will provide a high-luster finish.

Most automakers recommend that you wax your vehicle twice a year to protect its clear coat from damage and maintain the car's color and shine. However, some auto-care suppliers recommend monthly waxing. "Ideally, a vehicle should be waxed three to four times per year," Pennington says, to maximize the protection provided by the wax. "A good strategy is to start right before the winter and get into a three-month cycle."

When waxing your ride:

1. Wash and dry the vehicle before applying any product.

2. The paint surface should be cool and not in direct sunlight. The outside temperature should be above 50 degrees Fahrenheit, and humidity should be low.

3. Apply wax in small sections with either a foam pad or small terrycloth towel using overlapping strokes or circular motions.

4. Wait for a section to dry to a haze before wiping the wax off with a microfiber towel. Wipe in both directions, turning the towel often. Shake the towels often to remove accumulated wax.

5. When completely finished, wipe the entire vehicle again, paying particular attention to the edges of trim pieces, doorjambs and moldings where excess wax may have accumulated.

For additional shine between wax jobs, several manufacturers offer spray wax and spray detailers that can be used after a wash to enhance the shine. Spray wax and spray detailer are easy to use and take only a few minutes to apply, while adding a noticeable boost to the overall appearance.

On the inside

Now that you have finished the exterior, it's time to tackle your car's interior.

To start, thoroughly vacuum all carpets and upholstery to remove loose, dry dirt. Vacuum the vehicle's seats first before tackling dirty footwells. Don't forget to vacuum under the seats.

Specialists recommend using lint-free towels and fresh water to clean the dash area and seats. Cotton swabs are helpful for getting dust out of tight spots, and a clean, stiff-bristle brush is indispensable for removing caked-on dirt and grime from carpets and floor mats.

Pennington suggests using a product specifically designed for the surface you want to clean, whether it's leather, vinyl, plastic, wood, simulated wood or upholstery. Each product is formulated for a particular surface and will not work effectively on other surfaces. In fact, the wrong cleaner may even do damage.

Even with right cleaner, don't use too much. "The biggest problem with interior cleaning is that many people overuse the products or saturate the carpet when they shampoo," Pennington says.

Also, never use a product that leaves a shiny, slick finish on the dashboard or steering wheel. A shiny dash reflects light, which can be a major safety hazard while driving. That goes for a slippery steering wheel, too.

Mike Meredith worked in motorsports public relations and practiced law before joining MSN CarPoint (now MSN Autos) in 1999. A lifelong automotive enthusiast, Meredith has raced sports cars, teaches high-performance driving and enjoys auto detailing in his copious free time.


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