Automobiles have changed considerably over the years, and yet most people wash their cars the same way they always have - with lots of water and not enough attention to detail. Meanwhile, the shelves at auto-parts stores are brimming with cure-all solutions that can do as much harm as good if used improperly. But fear not: here's our guide to washing your precious metal the smart, modern way.
1 Shut off the hose!
Automakers devote lots of time and money to make new cars as efficient as possible, and yet the EPA estimates that car owners pour 500 gallons of water down the drain - about twenty showers' worth - every time they wash their car. Instead of running the hose the entire time, use it in focused doses, first to clear heavy dirt and then at the end for a low-pressure, spot-free rinse. Mix the soap in your bucket with warm water from the sink - no need to fill it. Avoid streaking by working out of direct sunlight.
2 Clean, don't scratch:
Don't even think about bringing out the dish soap and the old wash mitt. Specially formulated detergents are milder and won't strip your wax. Microfiber towels, meanwhile, are much softer than cotton or wool and, more important, rinse out better, so you won't inadvertently scratch the clear-coat with trapped dirt as you scrub and dry your car.
3 Clean that bling:
Time to get on your hands and knees. Some tools that will make the wheel job easier include an old toothbrush and Q-tips to get into the little crevices around the spokes and lug nuts. A clay bar (see next step) does wonders for scrubbing off brake dust. There are plenty of options for dressing your tires. We recommend wiping, rather than spraying on the gloss, so as not to get your brake rotors and freshly washed paint oily.
4 Clay it:
Claying your car once or twice a year removes industrial fallout and other contaminants from your clear-coat and leaves a much cleaner, shinier surface. The clay is sold in most auto-parts stores as a kit containing spray detailer, a microfiber towel, and the clay bar itself. Working one section at a time, squirt the detailer on the surface and simply glide the clay over it. Repeat until you can run your hand over the paint without feeling any grit. Never reuse a clay bar that has fallen on the ground.
Professional detailers bristle when you use the terms "polish" and "wax" interchangeably, because they do very different things. The former actually refers to an abrasive, which can erase or at least minimize swirling, oxidation, and some minor scratches. Look for something clear-coat safe for newer cars, and always test on a small spot first. Anything you can't remove will likely need harsher abrasives, wet sanding, electric buffing, or all three: in other words, stuff you probably don't want to mess with.
Now that you have that perfect finish, you'll want to protect it. Again, there are several options here, but they generally fall into two categories. Traditional carnauba wax buffs to a deep, glossy luster. Newer synthetic waxes (sometimes called sealers) tend to be easier to apply and last longer.
7 Go waterless?
Spray detailers, which usually combine some sort of lubricant to lift surface dirt with a wax, can be useful if you need to do a quick touch-up, especially if you live in an area that is subject to frequent water bans and/or cold winters. However, most (but not all) detailing experts don't recommend using them for serious cleaning for fear of scratching. A compromise is to drive through a brushless car wash and then finish up with the spray detailer and microfiber towels.