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Should I Wrap My Car?

Try a temporary look for less

If you've ever spotted cars with chameleon, chrome-like finishes or emblazoned with camouflage print, you're likely seeing a wrap rather than a clever paint job. Wraps are one of the fastest-growing trends in vehicle customization, not only for commercial purposes (primarily advertising and marketing) but also for personalizing passenger cars and trucks. Wraps accounted for $5.8 billion in global sales in 2022, with U.S. customers making up about a third of that share. In the U.S., wraps and other body finishing products, including window tint and vinyl graphics, grew 15% from 2018 to 2021, according to the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA).

It's easy to see why. Wraps are fairly durable and they're quick, easy ways to change the look of your car. With good care, a wrap can last about five years, at which time you can switch to a new color or design or revert back to the original paint job. Think of it as a temporary tattoo for your car.

Here at Edmunds, when we tired of our Tesla Model 3's Midnight Silver Metallic paint we decided to wrap it. Edmunds employees came up with designs, which the whole company then voted on. Along the way, we learned a lot about the process. Getting a car wrapped isn't simply stretching some vinyl over the body panels. The proof is in the prep; the better the prep, the better the result.

Should you wrap your car? That depends on your car's condition, your commitment to maintaining the wrap, and whether the cost makes sense. Follow along with our Model 3 journey and you'll be able to make a more informed decision.

Exotics and high-end luxury cars can cost upward of $10,000 to wrap.

Exotics and high-end luxury cars can cost upward of $10,000 to wrap.

What is a car wrap?

A wrap is a series of vinyl decals placed over the vehicle's body panels, changing its appearance. Design options typically include a standard glossy color, gradient color, matte finish, chrome metallic color or full-on graphic treatments. (This Grand View Research report predicts that matte black and matte orange will be among the most popular colors in the near future.) The only limits are your imagination and your budget.

Wrapping differs from a paint job in that the vinyl can be removed with no impact on the existing paint, assuming the wrap was maintained correctly. More on that later.

Why would I wrap my car?

If you have a favorite color that isn't offered from the factory, a wrap can be a solution. Maybe you're tired of the color on your current leased vehicle and want a change of pace. You can throw a wrap on it, drive it for a while with the new color, then remove it before the lease is up. And if you have a business, a wrap serves as an ideal mobile advertisement.

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What car condition is required?

Don't expect a wrap to cover for an old or bad paint job. Although you won't see it when the car is wrapped, the paint needs to be in good condition for the wrap to properly adhere. If your vehicle has scratches and door dings, they'll stick out "like a sore thumb," according to Brian Hülz, former sales manager at Galpin Auto Sports, a large customization shop in Los Angeles. Imperfections under the wrap will always show up on the surface. If the old paint is flaking, the vinyl will have a hard time sticking. Hülz advised customers to fix any scratches or dents before wrapping their cars.

How is a wrap installed?

The installer will first wash the car and detail with a clay bar to remove contaminants from the surface of the paint. Some installers use a solution of isopropyl alcohol to clean the paint, then blow off any remaining dirt particles with compressed air. The bumpers, headlights and taillights are then removed, allowing the installer to apply the wrap as close to the edges of the body panels as possible. (Installers can skip this step if customers are squeamish about dismantling the body and instead use a scalpel-like tool to cut the vinyl around lights and grilles.)

The vinyl is then applied to the body using a heat gun to make the material more pliable and easier to hug the contours of the vehicle. More advanced wrap designs, such as those with graphics or custom colors, will require additional vinyl layers. Finally, the installers use a soft felt squeegee to remove any air pockets.

The whole process can take a few days to complete, or even longer if you want the door jambs (the inner body-colored part of your doors) to match. The door jambs alone can take a day and a half, Hülz said. The doors need to be taken apart before being wrapped, which adds more labor and cost. Hülz added that black cars make ideal candidates for wrapping since the door jambs are less noticeable and you don't have to spend extra to wrap them.

How much do car wraps cost?

Prices depend on the style of wrap, size of the vehicle and the complexity of installation. A gloss vinyl or matte finish on a compact coupe or sedan averages $2,000 to $3,000, while an SUV runs about $4,000. Chrome or metallic finishes are more expensive due to the higher cost of the materials and the added installation complexity. Chrome wraps can turn dull when overheated or when stretched over a curvy surface. Expect to pay roughly $6,000 to $8,000 for a chrome wrap.

Have a pricey car? Expect a pricey wrap. An ultra-luxury car like Rolls-Royce would cost around $12,000 to wrap, Hülz said. Not only are the body panels more difficult to remove than your average premium or luxury car, but installers obviously need to exercise greater caution when applying the wrap. The Edmunds Tesla Model 3 wrap with graphics cost about $3,700.

Is it cheaper to get a car wrapped or painted?

A cheap paint job usually costs less than a wrap, but a competent, quality paint job with multiple coats will cost about the same. This assumes you've chosen a standard, basic color for your paint job. If you want a matte finish or color-shifting paint, the cost rises significantly — more than wrapping it to achieve the same look. It's important to note again that the wrap isn't permanent — something you can't say about a new paint job.

We'd be remiss to ignore the possibility of doing the work yourself. You'll need about 250 to 300 square feet of vinyl for a regular coupe or sedan and up to 400 square feet for an SUV. A 5-by-50-square-foot roll of vinyl from 3M, one of the leading manufacturers of car wrap along with Avery Dennison and Arlon Graphics, costs about $500 to $600. You'll also need tools such as squeegees, tape, cutting blades and razors, as well as a heat gun, an infrared thermometer and gloves. You'll also need volumes of patience if you've never attempted a wrap before. The DIY route can save you loads of money and be rewarding for owners who enjoy being hands-on with their cars. But for everyone else, we'd recommend sticking with professionals.

How long does a car wrap last?

The less a car wrap is exposed to the elements, the longer it will last. Hülz told us that a car wrap can last up to five years if properly maintained. That typically means avoiding excessive sun exposure, which can 'bake' the vinyl into the body panels, shortening the wrap's lifespan and making removal far more difficult. A car always parked on the street in Southern California, for example, and not cleaned regularly may only get one year from a wrap, Hülz said. Day-long sun exposure may be unavoidable for many drivers, but other measures will help a wrap last longer, including regular washing and promptly removing insects and bird droppings. Other helpful methods include parking in a garage or using a car cover whenever possible.

A ceramic coating can also help protect a glossy vinyl wrap. Impressive Wrap, the company that wrapped our Tesla Model 3, offers ceramic coating protection for glossy vinyl wraps. The installer applies this liquid "nano-ceramic" coating atop the wrap. It hardens and protects the wrap from water damage, has a greater UV resistance, and can ward off minor scratches. The ceramic coating will help the wrap last longer, but it isn't cheap. It can add about $1,500 for a compact car and $2,000 for an SUV on top of what you're paying for the wrap itself.

How do you maintain a wrapped car?

The best way to ensure a wrap will last is to keep the car in a garage. If you don't have a garage, invest in a good car cover. You should hand-wash the car with soft microfiber towels. A waterless car wash spray is a good idea for intervals between full washes. Skip the automatic car wash; the harsh bristles and brushes can scratch or lift the wrap.

How to remove a car wrap

When the time comes to sell your car, or if you just want to go back to the original paint, you'll take the car back to a wrap installer. If the wrap maintains its structural integrity, removal is as easy as pulling off a Band-Aid. The process can take three to four hours and can cost between $500 to $1,000. A difficult removal costs significantly more. If the wrap has baked in and begins to come apart in flakes and shards, expect to pay much more for the added labor, which can cost upward of $2,000 to $2,500. This kind of job is a wrap shop's worst nightmare, so expect to pay accordingly.

After removal, the shop cleans off any sticky wrap residue with an adhesive remover. Finally, the car gets another clay bar detail to remove any impurities from the clear coat. If everything goes well, the wrap will not have damaged the paint. If your paint was not in the best shape or was repaired at some point with a thinner coat, there's a chance that some of it may lift off with the wrap.

Wraps aren't for everyone

While a car wrap can breathe new life into the look of your car, a vinyl wrap isn't something you put on and forget about. Your location is a factor: The salt used to melt snow on roads is hard not only on your car's underbody but also on your vinyl wrap. And if you live in a hot climate and leave a wrapped car outside too long, the sun will take its toll. But if you're willing to deal with the extra care and maintenance, a car wrap can make your ride stand out from the rest.