Clean Your Car Without Washing It

Triage for a Dirty Car on a Tight Schedule


  • Dirty Windshield Picture

    Dirty Windshield Picture

    After a light rain or dew, a squeegee is a quick way to keep those horrible drying marks off your windshield. | December 05, 2011

4 Photos

You have a hot date or an important appointment and you rush outside, only to find that your car looks like a hazmat zone. Luckily, you still have five minutes to do something about it. But where do you start?

Take a tip from used-car salesmen and give your car "curb appeal" — a good overall first impression. When you can't make use of a car wash, even little things can make a world of difference.

The folks at Meguiar's Inc. know a lot about making cars look good. The company's core market is enthusiasts who lavish attention on their cars. But Mike Pennington, Meguiar's director of training and consumer relations, was willing to talk about the gray area between a few swipes with a car duster and a full-on Saturday morning "bucket wash."

"We don't want to tell people not to wash their car anymore," he says. "But if you are willing to put a little time into it, you'll be surprised at how good your car can look."

Over at Turtle Wax Inc., Michael Schultz, senior vice president of research and development, says car finishes are more durable and the chemistry of waxes and car-care products has changed. This means that for minor indiscretions — think fingerprints, bird droppings and light dust — you can use a spray detailer to sharpen up the look of your car.

But one expert, who used to prepare cars for photo shoots, sounded a note of caution: Be careful of too obviously cleaning just one section of the car. It might draw attention to how dirty the rest of it is.

Here are six tricks you can use to keep up the good looks of your car between car washes. Think of it as triage for a dirty car.

Triage Tip 1: Clean horizontal surfaces with a spray detailer. You don't have to clean the whole car, just the obvious surfaces that catch dew or light rain and leave water marks. The eyesore areas are the hood, trunk and rear bumper.

Schultz recommends cleaning these surfaces in sections, using a spray detailer and microfiber towel, which is finely woven and makes better contact with the car's surface. For example, divide the hood in quarters and clean the four sections individually. He estimates you could even clean the entire car this way with spray detailer and only four towels.

Many car enthusiasts worry about scratching or putting swirl marks in the car's finish. The spray detailer is designed to avoid this by lubricating the dirt so it can be wiped up with a towel. But Schultz stresses the importance of flipping the towel often so you don't grind dirt into the clear coat — the transparent finish covering the car's paint.

Triage Tip 2: A clean windshield is (almost) a clean car. Glass is easy to clean and it sparkles like a jewel once you remove the haze and grime. Visibility is a huge safety factor, but a clean windshield also just makes you feel better about your car. When you're finished with the outside of the windshield, clean the driver-side window and side mirror, too. And for bonus points, clean the inside of the windshield and rearview mirror.

Keep a bottle of glass cleaner in your trunk, along with a roll of paper towels or the aforementioned microfiber towels. A foam spray cleaner also works well. For the really lazy folks, there's a squeegee. In addition to cleaning, a squeegee works well in the morning when there is dew all over the windshield. Squeegee off the morning moisture and your glass won't be left with those horrible drying marks.

Triage Tip 3: Take out the trash. It's a car, not a dumpster. Pull up next to a trash can somewhere and throw away papers, food or other junk that dates from the second Bush administration. Better yet, put a small trash bag in your car and empty it often, Pennington suggests.

While you're shoveling out your car, you might find a couple bucks' worth of change. Use it to buy a car deodorizer. Pennington says car interiors can absorb smells, but there are new products that actually absorb dreaded foul odors rather than just mask them. We've tested a few and they seem to work.

Triage Tip 4: Shake out the floor mats. When time is tight and you don't have a vacuum, you can simply grab your floor mats and shake off all the gravel, loose dirt, sand or — heaven forbid — used ketchup packets. The mat on the driver side probably is secured, so you'll have to work it off the anchors first. But the other floor mats are unattached and you can simply whisk them out for a quick flapping.

Triage Tip 5: Clean the wheels and tires. Pennington says that having dirty wheels on a clean car is like wearing old shoes with a new suit. So it makes sense to make the "shoes" look as sharp as possible.

The absolutely laziest way to go is just to use a cotton rag to wipe off the flat center section of your rims. (There's too much dirt on the rims for one of your microfiber towels to handle.) If time allows, work the rag into the spokes or crevices. You also can use a brush for the hard-to-reach areas.

As tires degrade, the rubber takes on a brownish hue that makes them look dull, Schultz says. So after you're finished cleaning the wheels, apply tire black with a sponge. Easier still, just use a spray product to get a quick shine.

Triage Tip 6: Clean anything you touch or look at. When you're in the car, you spend a lot of time looking at the gauges, the dashboard and the center console. So take that microfiber towel you used on the car's exterior and quickly clean off a few strategic areas inside the car. The plastic covering for the gauges is a must. Then, wipe the dust off the dashboard and sweep the fingerprints from the center console. Our experts recommend keeping car cleaning wipes in the glove compartment for quick interior touch-ups.

Now that you're finished, here's one more suggestion to make your life easier: Be very careful where you park. Sprinklers can undo all your hard work. And if you leave your car under the wrong tree, you might return to find it looking like a rock in the Galapagos Islands.

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