Are extras at automatic car washes worth it?

Stop being confused by extra services at automatic washes

By Erin Fisher - Producer

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Pull up to any automatic car wash -- the kind where machines do all the work while you wait -- and you’ll find a staggering menu of options. Should you pay more for spray-on wax? Is an undercarriage wash worth it? And what the heck is “wheel brite”?

Let’s start with the basics: How often should you wash your car? What do the experts at Consumer Reports say? It’s not about doing it on a schedule. Instead, if you notice your car has mud or grime on it, that’s the time to wash it.

A good car washing is important to protect the paint and finish from dirt and other debris that can sometimes leave permanent marks, like bird droppings, tree sap and bugs.

And what about the dizzying array of extras and add-ons? Are services like wheel shining and spraying on wax worth the extra cost to help protect your car? You can definitely skip most of them. They may make your car look nice, but they’ll wear off fast.

However, there is one car wash extra you should buy once in a while: an undercarriage wash. You should get it done once a season to clean off mud and grime after a wet spring. 

Consumer Reports says automatic car washes tend to be less expensive than places that wash cars by hand. They’re a good option if you don’t have a lot of built-up grime. But you won’t get the attention to detail that a hand-washing offers.

Whether you choose an automatic or hand wash, how do you know whether you’ve chosen a  business that will actually do the job right? Check out the cars leaving the location: Do they look clean?

Super-cheap car washes might use dirty towels and old, harsh brushes, and rush cars through the process. And try to find a car wash that sprays down the car before the wash cycle begins. CR says presoaking will get you on the road to a clean, shiny vehicle.

If you prefer to wash your car yourself, remember that using the wrong kind of soap -- such as dish detergent -- can strip the car’s finish. And using sponges for cleaning (as many people do) can leave swirl marks in the paint.

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