The Essential Car-Cleaning Guide

Get your auto in tip-top shape for spring.

  • Jerry Edgerton
Think of it as a wise investment: Keeping your auto filth-free can boost its resale value and eradicate those nasty end-of-lease excess-wear-and-tear charges. And if you focus on the task at hand, it shouldn't take more than an hour every two weeks.

The Interior

A shiny exterior polishes your automotive image with the world, but keeping the inside clean makes life more pleasant for you and your family. Dragging the cord of a vacuum cleaner through puddles is an especially bad idea, so clean the interior before the exterior. 

Dash and doors 
  • Using an electrostatic dust cloth, sweep the dash, knobs, vinyl surfaces, and plastic trim.
  • Wipe them down with an all-purpose cleaner using an old towel.
Pesky gearshift 
  • Gently pull the leather or plastic away from the sides to vacuum it and wipe it down with a cleanser-dampened towel.
Floor and seats
  • Start by taking out the floor mats and shaking them. If you don't have floor mats, get them―they protect the carpeting and can be replaced if stained beyond repair. If your region gets a lot of snow or rain, you might want to buy a rubber mat with deep channels to collect mud, sand, and salt (two front mats for inclement weather that each hold more than a quart of liquid, $70, griotsgarage.com).
  • Vacuum the mats, the seats, and the floor carpeting, in that order. Slide the front seats all the way back and make sure to get the debris (spare change and fossilized French fries) from under the front seats. Then move the seats all the way forward and vacuum underneath from the backseat.
  • Tilt the seats back so you can get the nose of the vacuum down in the cracks.
Windows and windshield
  • A microfiber cloth and a spritz of water clean well and won't cause streaks.
  • Roll down the windows a few inches to get the grime on the top edges.
  • For the rear window, use the back of your hand so you don't strain your wrist.
 

 The Exterior

A warm, sunny spot might seem like the perfect place to wash and dry your car, but it guarantees streaks. Wash in the early morning or evening, or in a shady area. 

Rinse it
 
  • Hose off loose dirt.
  • Life the windshield wipers and spray the cracks below both windshields.
  • Blast the undersides of the wheel wells and the hubcaps.
Wash it
  • Make sure your wash mitt is clean. "We've seen people ruin their finish because they didn't rinse off the grime on the mitt before washing it," says Robert Traicoff, supervisor of paint materials for the Ford Motor Company.
  • One-eighth of a cup of mild dishwashing liquid, like Dove, in a bucket of water is fine for unwaxed finishes. Starting with the roof, soap an arm's-length-size section with your wash mitt and rinse it immediately. Then tackle the hood, the sides, and the trunk, in that order, using the same method, so you go from most to least clean for the sake of the soapy water.
  • To prevent streaking, don't suds up the windows (you'll wash them separately).
  • Use a separate sponge to scrub only the especially grimy areas: the windshield wipers and the tires. Save the right front wheel for last because it gets the dirtiest ― it hits the puddles and loose gravel on the side of the road.
  • To remove tar, saturate a cloth with a mixture of 1/4 cup vinegar and 1/2 teaspoon linseed oil; rub into the tar and remove.
Rinse again
  • Sluice off your car, making sure to power the soap out of nooks such as the rim of the gas-cap cover, under the door handles, and the innards of the side-view mirrors. Soap seeps out and streaks the car ― usually moments after you've finished drying the car and put everything away.
Dry it
  • Before water spots have a chance to mar the finish, use a towel to mop up the surface. Fold the towel as it gets damp.
  • If you have a chamois, use it to mop up any remaining dampness.
  • Remember to dry spots like the roof line just above the windows, which could spill excess water later when you move the car.
Do windows
  • Bugs, grease, and grime make auto glass harder to clean than the windows in your house. A detailer's favorite for cleaning windows and bug-spattered headlights is a solution of one part white vinegar to two parts water.
  • To avoid streaking, give the window weather stripping a few hours to dry before you roll down the windows. 
 

In Between

You won't need to do the full cleanup every time. But quick touch-ups between biweekly washes can make them easier.
  • If you live in a dusty area or frequently pass road construction, hose off the car between washes.
  • If your kids have a penchant for car sickness, use an ice scraper, which you might already carry in your car, to scoop up the offending liquid, and an all-purpose cleaner to spray and blot on the area.
  • Treat your rig like a national park―take out what you bring in. Get in the habit of removing your coffee cups and gum wrappers each time you leave the car. While driving, toss your trash in the Puff'n Stuff litter bag, $12.50, stacksandstacks.com).
  • Tree sap doesn't become a problem until it dries. Wipe it off before it sets or it may stain your car.