Should I Wrap My Car?

Is It Cheaper to Paint or Wrap a Car?


If you've recently spotted a car with a chrome-like finish or emblazoned in camouflage print, chances are it's been wrapped in vinyl rather than painted. Car wraps are a fast-growing trend in vehicle customization, with a North American market that is expected to reach $10.8 billion by 2025, up from $1.62 billion in 2015. Wrapping allows you to change the look of your ride without a long-term commitment. Think of it as a temporary tattoo for your car.

Here at Edmunds, we were starting to get bored with the Midnight Silver Metallic paint on our Tesla Model 3 and 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 wrapping process and are sharing it here as a Q&A, along with a few pros and cons to consider.

What Is a Car Wrap?

A car wrap is a series of vinyl decals that are placed over the body panels of the vehicle, letting you drastically change its appearance. The design options include a standard glossy color, gradient color, matte finish, chrome metallic color, and full-on graphics treatments. The only limits are your imagination — and your budget.

Wrapping differs from a paint job in that the decals can be removed later 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 as an option from the factory, a car wrap can be a solution. Maybe you've grown 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. Finally, many businesses wrap company cars to serve as mobile advertisements.

What Car Condition Is Required?

Don't expect the wrap to serve as a cover-up for an old or bad paint job. Although you won't see it when the car is wrapped, the paint has to be in good condition or the wrap will be a mess.

If the vehicle has scratches and door dings, they'll stick out "like a sore thumb," said Brian Hülz, sales manager for Galpin Auto Sports, a large auto customization shop in Southern California. Imperfections under the wrap will always show up on the surface. If the old paint has started to flake, the decals will have a hard time adhering to it. Hüz says he advises his customers to get any scratches or dents fixed before wrapping the vehicle.

How Is a Wrap Installed?

First, the shop that's doing the wrap washes the vehicle and details it with a clay bar to remove any 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 shop then removes the bumpers, headlights and taillights so that the installer can apply the wrap as close to the edges of the body panels as possible. If a customer doesn't feel comfortable with the shop taking the car apart, the installer will omit this step and instead use a scalpel-like tool to cut the vinyl around the lights and grilles.

The installers then apply the vinyl wrap to the body of the vehicle. They use a heat gun to make the material more pliable, so it can properly hug the contours of the vehicle. Some of the more advanced wrap designs, such as those using 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. It's longer if you want the doorjambs (the inner body-colored part of your doors) to match. The doorjambs alone will take a day and a half, Hülz said. The doors need to be taken apart before being wrapped, which adds more labor and cost to the installation. Hülz says black cars make the ideal candidates for wrapping: The doorjambs are less noticeable and you don't have to spend extra for them to be wrapped.

How Much Do Car Wraps Cost?

The shop determines the price for a car wrap, based on the style of wrap, size of the vehicle and the complexity of installation.
For example, a matte or satin finish on a vehicle that's about the size of a Ford Mustang will run about $3,000 to $4,000. Chrome or metallic finishes are significantly more expensive due to the higher cost of the materials and the added complexity of installation. Chrome wraps can turn dull when they're overheated or when they are stretched over a curvy surface. Expect to pay roughly $6,500 to $8,000 for a chrome wrap.

Got a pricey car? Expect a pricey wrap. "A high-end car like a Rolls-Royce would cost about $12,000 to wrap," said Hülz. The installers need to be extra careful with those vehicles and the body panels are more complicated to remove.

The Edmunds Tesla Model 3 wrap with graphics cost about $3,700.

Is It Cheaper to Get a Car Wrapped or Painted?

An inexpensive paint job is usually cheaper than a car wrap. A higher-quality paint job with multiple coats will cost about the same as a car wrap. That said, this assumes you have chosen a basic color for your paint job. If you want a matte finish or a color-shifting paint, painting your car would cost significantly more than wrapping it to achieve the same look.

Also, it's important to note that the wrap is not permanent: You have the option of reverting to the original factory color. And that would not be possible with a paint job.

How Long Does a Car Wrap Last?

The less a car wrap is exposed to the elements, the longer it will last. If properly maintained, a car wrap can last up to five years, said Hülz. However, excessive sun exposure can "bake in" the vinyl wrap, making it harder to remove and significantly shortening its lifespan. If you park the car on the street and don't keep it clean, the wrap might only last a year, Hülz said.

Impressive Wraps, which 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 cost about $1,500 on a compact car and $1,800 on an SUV. That's in addition to what you're already paying for the wrap.

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 handwash the car with soft microfiber towels. Hülz recommends a waterless car wash product. Automatic car washes are off limits: The harsh brushes could scratch or lift off 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 the shop that applied the wrap. If the wrap has retained its structural integrity, removal is as easy as pulling off a Band-Aid. The process can take three to four hours and costs $500 to $600. A difficult removal costs significantly more. If the wrap was baked in and begins to come apart as the shop removes it, expect to pay about $2,500 for the added labor.

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, which is the ideal scenario. 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 might come off with the wrap.

It's Not 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. Where you live is also a factor: The salt used to melt snow on roads in cold states is hard on the vinyl. Similarly, if you live in a hot climate and you leave a wrapped car outside too long, the sun will take its toll.

But if you have a garage or cover and are willing to deal with the added maintenance, a car wrap can make your ride stand out from the rest.