With cold weather coming, now could be an excellent time to wax your car and help protect it from the potential hazards of falling leaves and road salt. Before buying a car wax, be aware that premium car wax brands don't necessarily hold up any better than lower-priced alternatives, based on our latest tests. In fact, some moderately priced liquids scored near the top of our Ratings--better than some products costing twice as much.
Still, none of the 19 products tested were good enough to be Rated excellent, with most showing signs of deterioration within a few weeks.
We also found that pastes performed no better than liquids overall, though the two top-scoring pastes were the only waxes to rated excellent for durability. Both wax types had similar scores for ease of use.
We did not evaluate spray-on/wipe-off products this time, because earlier tests have shown them to be less effective for cleaning, to be ineffective against weather, and to rate the worst for durability. They're best only for newer finishes and if you wash and wax frequently.
Thanks to today's clear-coat finishes, our testing shows that even the best wax will probably not improve the shine on a new car. Regular washing is still the most important step to protecting your car's finish. But a coat of wax can add a layer of protection against tree sap, bird droppings, and other contaminants--at least for a while. Most products we tested showed a significant loss of protection within about five weeks. For this reason, we recommend waxing even new cars every two or three months. And if your car is older or the finish has begun to dull, the effects can be even more dramatic. Waxing can fill minute finish imperfections, and waxes that scored highly for gloss improvement removed oxidation and made paint appear darker and more vibrant.
But be aware that the paint finishes on some darker-colored cars can actually be damaged by some of the more abrasive waxes, which can leave swirl marks. Check our Ratings for products that scored lower in this area.
How to choose
All waxes require elbow grease, patience, and time. Depending on how fast you work, how thorough you are, the size of your vehicle, and the product you choose, expect to spend at least an hour to do a decent job. Check our Types section to see which product type best suits your needs.
Throughout this report, we will refer to the products as car waxes, rather than polishes. In part, this is for clarity, but also, the words "wax" and "polish" are often used interchangeably by makers of the products. Both describe a product that provides a glossy and protective coating, and may or may not remove oxidation and embedded contaminants. Products labeled "cleaner wax" may be somewhat abrasive and can actually remove some paint from the surface of the vehicle.
Consider the age of your car. If it's one or two years old or still has a good finish, an easy spray wax might be all you need. But keep in mind that these products wear out the quickest, and they are best suited to weekly or special-occasion applications. While a quick spray-wax treatment can freshen the vehicle's appearance, no wax will truly improve the shine on a newer car.
If you don't plan to replace your car for a while, waxing will help preserve the finish over time. If you have an older car, or one whose finish has already begun to oxidize or has embedded grime, you may want to consider a product that scored high for cleaning to help bring back and maintain the finish. Liquid waxes proved the best in cleaning.
Watch out for abrasion. Waxes can be abrasive, and the tiny particles in car waxes or harsh chemicals can leave fine scratches or a haze on your car's finish. Dark-colored vehicles show scratches more easily than lighter-colored ones. If you own a black or dark-colored vehicle, be especially wary of products that scored low in our scratching and hazing tests. The same abrasiveness can make clear-coated surfaces look hazy or cloudy when the finish is marred by fine scratches, giving the paint a duller look than before waxing. Most wax packaging indicates whether a product is safe for clear-coat finishes.
Consider how much plastic is on your car. Some waxes can leave a visible residue on non-glossy, porous plastic parts such as bumpers, plastic body panels, and door trim. Those parts are often black or gray, and some newer cars may have a lot of them. If that sounds like your car, choose a product that scored well in our compatibility-with-plastic tests. Once wax gets on those surfaces, it may be necessary to use a commercially available plastic cleaner to get rid of it.
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