Driving around in a shiny, freshly cleaned car is a real pleasure. But keeping it clean is a swings and roundabouts thing: quick and cheap could damage your paintwork; but tip-top protection can cost big bucks. Let’s get lowdown and dirty with your options.
Why is washing your car important?
Modern cars have sophisticated coatings, so keeping them in good condition is vital, as they’re easy to scratch if you're not careful.
Cleaning your car regularly deals with the corrosive effects of things like bird poo and dead insects, or the salt from winter roads, and dirt and grime that gets into nooks and crannies.
'Regularly' means when it's starting to look grubby, which could mean once a month, or more often in the winter (that salt is a killer on the underside of the car).
The best option is to do it yourself, by hand, with a few specialist products. In the real world, however, most of us just need a quick and easy solution – and there are plenty of those around.
Automatic car wash
You might think that the quickest option is to just go to an automated car wash at a local fuel station, buy a token, drive in and it’s done.
But it's not quite that simple. Sure, if you want something quick and easy, you can go for a basic wash and dry. You’ll still have water residue afterwards, but a microfibre cloth kept in the car allows you to wipe the car down and avoid water marks.
Choosing the wax option can give the car a little more shine, but it's never as good as a hand-applied wax, so best to save your money.
One criticism of these rollover car washes (as they’re known in the trade) is that the brushes are too harsh and can scratch the paintwork. This used to be true, but is less the case today with more modern car washes.
The newcomer on the block is the ‘touchless wash’. There aren’t many of them in the UK yet, but we might see more of them in the coming years. They use jets of water and chemicals, rather than brushes, to clean the car. The downsides are that if they’re not well managed, the chemical mix might not be perfect, and you’ll still need to wipe down your car to avoid water stains.
Pressure washes, jet washes and power washes
If can be very satisfying to blast away dirt and grime with that high-pressure water lance and, if you have a lot of mud stuck on to the car, the jetwash can be a good solution.
But, beware which brush you use. The bristles tend to be quite hard and it's likely to have dirt and grit from other cars attached to it. Using it on the surface of your car can result in a lot of fine scratches that then get attacked by dirt and dust and salt, undermining the paintwork.
Hand car wash
Most towns have a hand carwash, often located at a closed-down filling station. It's cheap and easy, and has the advantage of being done by hand, which is usually the best car wash option.
But not all hand car washes are the same. Some are very good, the staff being diligent in their work, using clean water – and changing it when it starts getting dirty – and using different cloths for washing and drying. But some are more slapdash, and they can leave scratches in the paintwork.
One way to judge is to watch them working on another car as you wait your turn. You can always change your mind and drive away if you think they won’t do a good job.
Valet car wash
Valeting is a more professional hand car-washing service, which is often provided by someone in a mobile unit that can come to your home or workplace.
They use professional products and can offer high-quality service, but this means they’re not cheap. However, if you’re returning a car to a leasing company or getting ready to sell, it can be a worthwhile investment.
Car detailing: next-level car washing
If you’re loaded and own a top-end supercar, you don’t take it to a rollover wash. You get it detailed.
Detailing is a highly specialised process of meticulously cleaning, polishing and protecting every aspect of a car, from the bodywork, to the glass, to the wheels and tyres. Each detailing process takes many hours and costs hundreds – even thousands – of pounds. The results are hugely impressive, but it’s a million miles from buying a token at your local filling station.