Winter was a frozen hell for many snowbelt residents this season, but it’s important to remember that it was just as trying for your car—ice, slush, mud, and salt are no friend to a car’s paint or interior. As the weather finally begins to thaw, we decided it was high time to brush up on the essentials of car care. After a visit from Meguiar’s detailing expert Mike Pennington, here are ten easy steps for bringing your car back to top form. We tested them out on our Four Seasons 2014 Kia Cadenza.
1. Read the %$#!&$ Directions
Don’t be a hero. When it comes to your car’s paint and interior, put your pride aside and read the label. No matter what product you plan on using to help shed your car’s winter grime, it’s absolutely crucial you follow the instructions and use it the right way. While this may sound like common sense, it bears mentioning because incorrect use of certain products can actually do more harm than good.
2. A thorough wash
Whether you use just soap and water or a dedicated car cleaner, the key here is to be thorough. Let no panel, nook, or cranny go unnoticed, as all of that salt and dirt has surely found its way into your wheel wells and undercarriage. A high-pressure hose is another useful tool for this step.
You should be using two buckets—one for lathering up your sponge or microfiber towel and another for wringing out all of the filth. With just one bucket for both purposes, you’ll only end up scouring the same dirt back into your paint. Once finished, dry the body with a microfiber cloth if there’s one around, rather than a cotton towel.
3. Don’t forget wheels and tires
Pick up a bottle of wheel-and-tire cleaner for the best results. Before you start, make sure you know what metal the wheels are made of. There are dedicated products for aluminum, chrome, and steel, but using the wrong one could be abrasive to your wheels. With the right cleaner, go to work on the wheels and tires while making sure to stay clear from the brake calipers and rotors, which could react unfavorably to the solution. When in doubt, always use the least aggressive product to avoid stains or damage. Dry with a cotton towel.
4. Clay bar for smoothness
Applying white clay, lubricant, and a little pressure will do wonders for your car’s exterior. The texture of the clay will help rub off all of the rough particles which have bonded to your paint, and the final result feels showroom-smooth. You can also use it on glass, which will help rain repellents like Rain-X last longer.
Tear the clay bar into halves or thirds and select a piece to knead out flat. Apply a detailing spray like Meguiar’s Quik Detailer to the surface of the car, and rub the clay side to side. You shouldn’t feel much resistance from the car’s surface—if you do, spray more detailer. When you see that brown or black grime covering the clay bar, do not flip it over to use the other side. Instead fold it in half so there is only white clay on either side, and knead it out flat again. If you run out of white clay on your piece, move on to the next. If at any point you drop the clay bar, immediately discard it. Rubbing potentially abrasive materials back into the paint is something best to avoid.
5. Compound for your finish
Modern compound is made for clear coat paint, and isn’t as gritty and abrasive as it was 25 years ago. It can still make a big difference for the life of your paint, though. Use a dedicated foam applicator and, either by hand or with a dual-action polisher, rub the product into each panel one at a time. Make sure to wipe the surface off with a clean microfiber towel as you go, because the compound can cause damage to the paint if it dries.
6. Polish and Glaze
These products will do the most good for serious show-car enthusiasts, for that extra bit of gloss and sheen. The application process is very similar to that of the compound. It works especially well on black cars, and is a great way to protect your paint for the long term.
7. Waxing: thanks Mr. Miyagi, but we’ll take it from here
Waxing gives you the best quality of protection for your car over time, so a good wax will mean you don’t have to repeat the process as often in the future. The best advice for applying wax is to use thin and even coats—more is not better, because only so much wax can bond to the car’s surface. In fact, it’s just a waste of wax.
8. Interior: use a dry brush
Pull all of your mats out, and find a dry brush to use on the carpeting. Use the brush to fluff the carpet fibers and follow your work with a vacuum, ideally with an attachment for hard-to-reach places. The same is true for your car’s cloth seats. A casual once-over isn’t going to do the job here, so make sure you take the time to really cover the entire interior surface. Smaller brushes and attachments will prove especially useful for cleaning air vents, which can collect large amounts of dust and dirt.
9. Lather on that leather cleaner
There are plenty of leather cleaner products out there, but see if you can find one that’s made for leather car interiors and seats. Apply the leather cleaner according to the directions and wipe it down with a cotton towel. When your friend’s car is cracking and peeling inside, you’ll be grateful you took the time to enrich your car’s hide.
10. Have fun!
While these steps do take time and care, it shouldn’t be difficult or arduous. There’s a certain satisfaction and enjoyment we can all get from taking care of our cars, not to mention the money you’ll save by doing it yourself. With a little elbow grease, you and your car can enjoy motoring season feeling like a million bucks.