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The Best Wax for Your Ride

Car and Driver logo Car and Driver 3/15/2019 Jack Keebler
a close up of a car: Here’s what you need to know to choose the right wax for your vehicle.© Getty Images Here’s what you need to know to choose the right wax for your vehicle.

What's the best wax? That depends on what you want for you and your vehicle. And that depends on the product attributes you value-and also on the age of your vehicle and the condition of its paint job. There are things wax can do, and there are things wax can’t do to improve your machine's gleam. Read on for, ahem, reflections on automotive shine.

Wax is a protective coating applied on to the top layer of paint, which on virtually all vehicles today is a clear coat. (Clear coat is exactly what the name implies: a coat of clear, hard paint.) A modern vehicle's finish is composed of three parts: base primer, a color coat, and clear coat. The quality of a vehicle's shine depends on the smoothness of the clear coat; the smoother the top layer of paint, the more it's like a mirror. The thin layer of wax you apply helps fill tiny crevices in the paint that are caused by exposure to the elements and the spinning brushes at car washes. Wax can also protect the clear coat from hazing, smears, stains, tiny scratches, tree sap, and bird droppings. But to be effective and long-lasting, wax must be applied only on a perfectly clean vehicle.

Washing a Car© Getty Images Washing a Car

Your Wax Choice Makes a Difference

There are three main kinds of wax: spray-ons, liquids, and pastes. The critical attributes of wax products to consider are gloss improvement, durability, ease of application, ease of removal, how well it cleans the paint surface, protection from UV rays, compatibility with plastics, and price.

Spray-on wax is the easiest to apply and remove. However, spray waxes do not clean deeply, are less weather-resistant, and generally have the poorest durability. That makes them best for new-car finishes, for quickie wax jobs, or detailing on vehicles that are washed and waxed frequently.

Liquid waxes are better for older, higher-mileage cars that require more aggressive cleaning and sealing. (Some liquid waxes also clean the finish.) These are usually good for gloss and durability. A number of liquids use carnauba wax, well-known for its high gloss and durability.

Applying Wax© Getty Images Applying Wax

The last group is the paste waxes. We’ve found that they take more elbow grease to apply. Despite that, they don’t outperform the liquids in all attributes. As a group, they do have a reputation for slightly better durability; the shine lasts a little longer. A good rule of thumb is that protection provided by most waxes starts to wane after about five weeks. And most should be reapplied after two to three months.

Research

What about cost? Our research indicates that that premium-price waxes do not generally hold up any better than the lower-priced alternatives. And in some cases, the medium-price products outperform the more expensive brands, though the differences are not huge.

Our suggestion for the best wax? Find a mid-priced, brand-name liquid wax. We've assembled several of them below and included a good spray wax as well. If you want the ultimate show-car finish-especially if your vehicle is several years old and has been through many car washes-you should consider investing in a dual-action orbital buffer and applying polishing compound before waxing. Polishing out the swirl marks and tiny scratches before you wax-no matter what kind of wax you choose-will deliver a more glossy show-car shine than any wax alone can generate. And using a buffer is simple and safe enough that even amateur detailers can get great results with one.

Car Body Polishing© Getty Images Car Body Polishing

Pre-Wax Prep

Preparation, patience, a sharp eye, and thoroughness are the most important factors in achieving a bright and lasting shine. Here are some prep tips for getting you the best results:

  • Do not wash or wax in direct sunlight if you can avoid it.
  • Wash your car carefully from top to bottom with a soft cloth, soap, and lots of water.
  • Decontaminate the paint with a chemical cleaner that removes road tar or stuck-on gunk.
  • Use one of the brand-name clay-bar products to gently remove stains and smaller particles, leaving the paint surface smooth to the touch.
  • If you're really particular, consider using an isopropyl alcohol (IPA) cleaner to remove any surface fillers or polishing oil. (It's a mix of 50 percent alcohol and 50 percent distilled water.)
  • Your choice of wax can now be applied on the clean clear coat.

For most of us, a great wash and wax will be more than enough. But if you seek longer-life paint protection for your ride, you need to investigate paint sealants or the latest ceramic coatings. You can apply some of those products successfully yourself, while others need to be applied by a detailing pro.

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