Give your car a clean start for summer road trips

Quick tips for happier and safer travel

Last updated: June 23, 2014 02:30 PM

The summer road trip season is upon us, and it’s not too late to spruce things up inside and out. Aside from helping to maintain your investment, it’ll make the car a happier place for you and yours. And it’s a good excuse for a close inspection that might reveal other needs. Below are a few car care tips drawn from our experience and testing that should steer you in the right direction.

Freshening the interior

Start by cleaning out any trash and removing unneeded items, like that ice scraper. Then organize what's left, and stow away items in side pockets or compartments. Leaving things loose not only creates clutter, but items left on seats, the rear shelf, or dashboard can become deadly projectiles in a crash. Once everything is tucked away, use a mild cleaning spray and a microfiber cloth to remove dust and grime off the dash and plastic surfaces.

Next, use a vacuum to remove debris and dirt from the seats, floor mats, rugs, and trunk. A rented steam cleaner works well for deep cleaning stains, but those can get expensive. Try a household spray-on carpet cleaner first. For leather trim, use a leather cleaner. Clean the inside of windows with glass cleaner, but spray directly onto your cloth to avoid streaking.

Restoring the exterior shine

First, move into the shade. Never wash or wax a car in direct sunlight, or if the paint is hot to the touch. Bright sun can soften the paint and make it more susceptible to scratching. And don't use dish detergent on your car. Use a dedicated car-wash soap designed for use on automotive paint. Fill a bucket with plenty of water, and apply the suds with a clean natural sponge or a lamb's-wool mitt. Remember: Grit from a dirty sponge or rag can scratch the paint. Start from the top and work your way down, changing the water when it becomes dirty. Use a separate sponge for the tires and wheels. They're likely the grimiest part of your car, and you don't want to harm the finish by recycling road grunge. Don't let the car air dry when done—use a soft, clean towel to dry.

Waxing a car can provide a good shine and additional protection for the paint. Car waxes come in three forms: liquid, paste, and spray. Overall, we have found in our tests that paste waxes are easier to use than liquid waxes; liquid waxes cleaned the best; and spray waxes were easiest to use and left the fewest stains on plastic parts, but they didn't last as long as other waxes. With any wax you choose, we recommend you first try using it on an inconspicuous area, such as a clean doorjamb. And regardless of how hard you work, how much you spend, or what longevity claims manufacturers make, don't expect any wax to last all that long. All of the products we tested showed a significant loss of protection within about five weeks. (See our car wax buying guide and ratings.)

If there are significant scratches in your paint, think twice before trying to repair them yourself using a scratch repair pen. Our tests have shown good results are more difficult to achieve than TV commercials suggest.

But, we have found some exterior trim cleaners that can spruce up your plastic trim and brighten your bumpers. As with car wax, routine treatment will be necessary to keep these areas looking sharp all year.

Maintenance checks

Spring is also a great time to check your windshield wipers for wear and tear after battling snow and ice. If they're leaving streaks or missing parts of the windshield, it's probably time for new blades. Our tests have found that most blades are ready for replacement after just six months, but you can try extending their service life by wiping them with a cloth and glass cleaner before removing them. (See our windshield wiper buying advice.)

The winter months can also be tough on tires. If yours have less than 4/32-inch of tread left, then it's time to go shopping. You can easily check tread depth by inserting a quarter into a tire's deepest grooves, head pointing down. If you can see the top of George Washington's head, that means you have 1/8 of tread or less, and it's time to start shopping for new rubber. (See our tire buying advice and ratings.)

In addition, check to make sure the tires are properly inflated. In our tests, we noticed a decrease in highway fuel efficiency when tires were underinflated by 10 psi. More important, underinflated tires compromise handling and braking, and wear faster.

Under hood, clean engine parts with plain soap and water or with a commercial degreasing product, like Gunk. Be careful, though, not to get electrical connections wet. Be particularly attentive to keeping water away from the fuse box, cable junctions, and the large electrical connectors near the firewall.

If the battery terminals are growing a fuzz of white encrustation, you should clean the battery with a damp rag soaked with a solution of water and baking soda. Use a stiff toothbrush dipped in the baking-soda solution for the tough parts. (Wear eye protection and gloves when working around the battery.) You can then coat the terminals with a dielectric (non-conducting) protective grease, and spray the outside of the battery with a clear sealer. Both these products are available at auto-parts stores.

Summer can be harder on your battery than winter, due to the impact on temperature on the chemicals. Have the battery tested, and be proactive in buying a replacement. (See our car battery buying advice and ratings.)

For more on maintaining your car inside and out, see our guide to car maintenance and our guide to car repair.

Also read: How to give your old car new life

—Jim Travers


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