By on May 1, 2013

TTAC commentator raded writes:


I recently bought a new car for the first time. Up until 9 months ago, I had been driving a 1995 Buick Regal coupe that wore scratches and dents like badges of honor. After the transmission went out, I drove a hand-me-down 2002 Saturn L200 that had spent the majority of its life behind a motor home. In eight years of ownership, I took the Buick through an automatic car wash maybe three times and never washed it by hand (I live in Portland, Oregon. It rains almost nonstop October through May. That’s kind of like a car wash, right? Right??). Recently I took the Saturn through a car wash for the first time simply because I’m trying to sell it.

Now my fiancée and I have a pretty blue 2012 Mazda3 hatchback. For the first time in my life, I have a car that I want to keep looking good.

Trying to find an answer through Google hasn’t helped at all. There are groups that swear by every conceivable option. I’d love to hear that spending $5 at an automatic car wash every 3-4 weeks is all I need to do, but I’m not so sure, especially after reading about detailers regularly blaming automatic car washes for “swirling” that has occurred. And since it’s essentially an economy car, I’m also not willing to spend an hour hand washing it 3-4 times a week. Honestly I’d prefer to avoid hand washing altogether. I’m looking for a happy medium – something that will keep it looking clean without ruining the clear coat or turning it in to a huge time sink. What do you think?

Love the writeups.

Sajeev answers:

Yo, can you walk over to that Red Robin so I can HAZ CHEEZBURGER? Perhaps I shouldn’t write these Piston Slaps on an empty stomach. Hmm!

But seriously, you’d prefer to not hand wash?  Everyone wishes we could have something for nothing…but that ain’t happening, son.  Perhaps a touchless car wash in your area, and perhaps Yelp is your friend. Or not.

If an employee towel dries your ride after the car wash, will their towel add more fine scratches? Which turn into significant paint damage 5-10 years from now? Quite possible, if you really care.

There’s no right answer here: wash it yourself, lovingly wax it 1-2 times a year with a polymer-based Wax…and be grumpy that you have to do all the manual labor.  Go to a touchless car wash place, let them wax it regularly, pay big money and wonder if they are too harsh in the long term.

So, tapping into my vast brilliance (giggling) when it comes to car care, here’s my suggestion: let the touchless guys in your area do the regular cleaning, but you do the big stuff 1-2 times a year. Wash, Wax and enjoy a shiny blue Mazda. And don’t forget the clay bar on occasion, too.


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47 Comments on “Piston Slap: A Modest Proposal For a Shiny Ride...”

  • avatar

    I would wash it more then once a month, perhaps pop for an annual detail. I live in the rust belt so I get mine washed (touchless to prevent swirls) every time I fill-up, especially in the winter. Check your owners manual, but a lot of newer finishes don’t require wax, so don’t bother.

  • avatar

    Nu-Finish wax* 2-3 times a year, touchless car wash – avoid the “underbody spray” option. Why? Because it can force water, salt, debris up into areas of the undercarriage where it would never naturally get in driving – and will eventually cause corrosion. Hand-spray the wheel wells/rocker panels if you get lots of mud in/on there, because mud *will* trap water…

    *Nu Finish was #1 in CR testing a year or so ago – actually good stuff, but DON’T get it on any flat black trim; Turtle Wax Ice is OK on trim, but doesn’t seem to last as long as Nu-Finish.

    • 0 avatar

      “…avoid the “underbody spray” option. Why? Because it can force water, salt, debris up into areas of the undercarriage where it would never naturally get in driving – and will eventually cause corrosion.”

      I’ve always found it hard to believe that highway speeds on wet/salty roads don’t force everything were it wouldn’t naturally go. The solution would appear to be a creeping anti-corrosion application that gets there first, or stops what did.

    • 0 avatar

      Love the Nu-Finish, which btw has been around for a dog’s age. Here’s a vid from 1981, but its certainly not the first. “”. Very, very good stuff and you can normally find a bottle of it uber cheap in the K-Mart back aisle.

  • avatar

    Weird pick for this topic, I thought the Mazda 3 was for people unconcerned with appearances.

    • 0 avatar

      My car is happier than your car.

      I didn’t like the grin when I first saw the current-gen Mazda3. But it grew on me. I love it because it’s different – it stands out from the silver and white masses of Camcords on the highway.

    • 0 avatar

      I liked the grin right from the beginning. Mazdas are for serious drivers, not serious people. :D

  • avatar

    Nu Finish, hands-down, like Shaker said. He’s also correct on the flat black trim: DON’T GET ANY ON IT!!!

    Wifey’s CR-V STILL has dull marks from all the places I accidently didn’t follow my own advice…

  • avatar

    You live in Portland and they don’t use salt on the roads in the PacNW so your corrosion issues will be nothing like I have noticed since I moved to Buffalo. What you should be most concerned with is damage to your paint from sun, sand and flying rocks. The latter two are hard to prevent, the best advice there is don’t tailgate, but decent UV protection means a good wax a couple of times a year.

    Since you don’t seem like the kind of person who enjoys washing cars then go the car wash route. Keep a squeegee around to wipe off bird poop while it is still fresh and don’t wait too long between washes or the bugs will bake on.

    Blasphemy? To some car guys yes, but this isn’t a collectors car and in a year when the “newness” of your car wears off you will be back to your usual pattern. It’s better to do the bare minimum consistently than to start off with the best of intentions that drop off to nothing.

    • 0 avatar

      “It’s better to do the bare minimum consistently than to start off with the best of intentions that drop off to nothing.”

      Wise words for the rest of life, too.

    • 0 avatar

      The lack of road salt is nice. Portland might be the nicest climate for cars. Sure, it rains a lot, but we don’t get much in the way of snow/ice and it’s only sunny for 2-3 months of the year.

      It’s not so much that I don’t enjoy hand washing my car. I’m fairly tall and have some back issues that make leaning over or crouching for extended periods of time an issue. I’ve done the car wash a few times, but I think I need to take some aleve and tough it out a couple times per year.

  • avatar

    I’m a OCD with detailing so without getting into all the boutique products, multi-step processes, Sajeev has it right….get a good quality polymer based wax as they can last up to a year with a few coat application. I prefer Zaino (with the Flash Cure additive for quick curing between coats) and Optimum products but any polymer wax from Mother’s, Meguiars, etc that is easily found at typical retailers will do the job. After a good washing/drying, give it two coats of thin wax, buffing it out and letting it cure (preferably overnight) between applications. Use quality micro-fibre or terry cloth towels (without tags to avoid scratching). If you’re really feeling industrious, you can clay bar the paint prior to waxing to get any rail dust, tar spots and other impurities out of the clearcoat prior to waxing.

    Keep a big bottle of Formula 303 Aerospace Protectant handy for trim and rubber and you’ll be all set!

    Paint correction (i.e. removing swirls/scratches) requires more costly product and equipment which the OP doesn’t sound like he wants to get into anyways.

    • 0 avatar

      Full disclosure: I think a few inches of heavy, wet snow that melts/slides off during the day works wonders.

      Your advice is impressive, but I wonder if you shouldn’t be listening to the OP, as well. I have neighbours who wax/wash their Harleys more than ride them. It’s an issue. Life is short.

      • 0 avatar

        Like I stated in my original post, you can go OCD with detailing but I didn’t think that the OP really wanted to do that. But he does state that he wants a nice shiny finish on his new car….waxing does that. Performing a total wax once or twice a year isn’t a huge commitment and it should accomplish what he wants.
        As far as constantly detailing my vehicles, you’d probably think the same thing of me as you do of your Harley washing neighbours. But the fact is, I enjoy doing it and having clean, detailed vehicles. It’s my zen time.

    • 0 avatar

      An outstanding alternative to clay bar is the new nanoscrub wash mitt. You can remove all of the paint contaminants from an entire car in minutes. I absolutely hate clay bar’ing, so this product is well worth the $50 for me. Especially since my multistep finishing on my weekend car (paint correction – glaze – sealant – carnauba wax) typically takes a solid 2 or 3 nights of labor after work in the evenings! I only want to do that once a year! For our daily drivers, Meguiar’s just came out last year with a flat out amazing all in one cleaner wax called “DA Microfiber Correction System” that does an exceptional job of correcting imperfections and protecting. I can do a mid size car in 2 hours and have it look 90% as good as my multistep process.

      +1 on the 303. I have four bottles in my garage!

      To the OP: is my go-to site for products, expert reviews and DIY instructions. Optimum makes a great product called ONR (Optimum No Rinse Wash) which allows you to completely wash your car in a parking lot or garage with only a bucket and a sponge or wash mitt.

      I avoid automatic car washes as though they are infected with the plague. I use them only in the winter when absolutely necessary. There is no such thing as an automatic car wash that doesn’t scratch your paint or strip off wax. If you need to, my advice would be a touchless wash and hand wax applied twice every 3 months.

      • 0 avatar

        And if you do decide to wash yourself, here is an excellent guide on how to avoid scratches and swirls:

    • 0 avatar

      This is all good information, thanks

  • avatar
    slow kills

    Every new car owner thinks they’ll keep it looking new…for the first half year or so. You’ll get over it and accept entropy soon enough.

    • 0 avatar

      One of the reasons why I managed to get such a high trade-in value on my old car was that through careful maintenance it still looked new. They didn’t have to do any reconditioning…they just took the keys and parked it on the lot.

      It does make a difference. It’s not the most important thing in life by any stretch, but when the car looks good the urge to buy a new one is often kept at bay and the value of the vehicle as a trade-in is maximized.

  • avatar

    I just use a pressure washer and some car wash soap in the soap bottle and the car looks great and I didnt break my back doing it. Pre spray any bugs with bug and tar remover.

  • avatar

    I love to keep my car looking good. It’s the most expensive thing I own! (I’m a student) But, I don’t like car washes. They do beat the crap out of a vehicle. And yours being the color it is, will show surface scratches more than a light color car.

    I hand wash my car every other week and wax and clay bar it at least twice a year. In between washes, I may stop at one of those road side spray wash things and pressure wash the salt/dirt off if it gets real bad. I bought some Meguiars Quick Detailer. Maybe once a month, in between waxes, I’ll apply this to the paint after washing to keep it shiny (use a microfiber towel).

    Anyway, I found a couple of neat little hand shaped microfiber wash mitts, and a microfiber auto dry towel at the dollar tree. They work great! Get a sham-wow, some good car soap from Autozone, and a dedicated wash bucket.

    After a few washes, you’ll have a system down. I can pop off a thorough hand wash in less than an hour. The wash and wax will take 2 or 3 hours. To me, the time spent is worth the it.

    Some tips:
    Wash your car in the shade.
    Make sure your towels, mittens, and bucket are clean before washing.
    Hose the entire car off BEFORE touching it with the wash mitt.
    Wash in sections and rinse the soap off as you go.
    Use the sham-wow to soak up the big water when your done, the dry completely with the auto dry towel.
    Use a terry to wipe out the door jams.
    Don’t neglect the wheels! Use a separate towel, mitt, bucket dedicated to the wheels. Brake dust stained wheels will kill the look of a clean car.

    Can you really not spare 2 or 3 hours a month to keep your new car looking good?

    There’s nothing like a good hand job!

  • avatar
    David Hester

    For your first wash/ detail job while it’s still new: Handwash it yourself the first time and then go ahead and clay bar it before applying a good coat of wax. I use Meguier’s Ultimate on my cars, but any name brand will do. Use a paste or gel based polish for this, not the spray on/ wipe off stuff.

    After that, use a touchless carwash for your weekly/ monthly washing. After every four or five of those, use the spray on/ wipe off wax to touch it up. Use a paste or gel on the bumpers and outside of the mirrors in the summer. This will make it easier to clean off bug guts.

    Use some of the quick detailer (not wax) in a spray bottle to remove any bird deposits as soon as you see them to keep them from baking into your finish. Bird crap is the worst.

    Twice a year, in the spring and fall, I give my all of my cars a thorough inside and outside detailing and apply a coat of paste or gel wax during one of those. The rest of the time I just use the spray on/ wipe off wax. I prefer Meguier’s, but the others seem to work just as well.

    • 0 avatar
      David Hester

      Oh, and count another vote for the Formula 303 Aerospace protectant. It’s a little pricey and can be hard to find, at least in my area, but worth it.

      • 0 avatar

        303 is amazing stuff. Nothing made by Armor-All is worth a tinker’s cuss, but regular application of the 303 to rubber, vinyl, and coated leather surfaces (leather that won’t absorb a drop of water) keeps them from being damaged by UV rays. If you have a cheaper car with a lot of plastics on the exterior (like the Mazdas) then 303 is going to be your best buddy.

        • 0 avatar

          “Nothing made by Armor-All is worth a tinker’s cuss..”

          Unless you want what Sajeev calls the Mop-N-Glow look. Nothing says trash like greasy-looking plastic & rubber.

          A thorough handwash and Meguier’s paste for me.

          • 0 avatar

            I typically don’t believe in “magic in a bottle” solutions for anything, but for leather upholstery/trim the “Leatherique” products are just that. They are expensive and labour intensive but if you put in the time/effort to use correctly, you can make a tired leather interior look like new. Similar to 303, it gives the *just right* amount of sheen that makes leather (and vinyl) look new. Great stuff!

          • 0 avatar


            Yes, leather is another matter entirely. Started my leather fetish collecting classic cameras. The neverready cases, camera bags, lens cases…etc. were dead-art magic to me.

            I’ve restored countless such articles, always default to Lexol.

  • avatar
    Compaq Deskpro

    Just be happy the car isn’t rusting out beneath you.

  • avatar

    Speaking as a long-time detailing nut:

    1. The car wash techniques most people use suck, and that’s why most people’s cars have clearcoats that are loaded with swirls and scratches. Improper wash technique is the number 1 vector for a hazy, swirled, hideous finish.

    2. The fact that someone gets paid to do something doesn’t mean that they’re actually a professional. Car washes do not hire competent people who care about their job. They hire low wage people who don’t really have a lot of prospects and they don’t supply them with proper training in the protection of a customer’s paint or provide them with the necessary equipment. When was the last time you saw somebody working at a car wash toweling off the car with a clean, thick-piled microfiber that wasn’t used on another car? Yeah. That’s a clue. All of this applies to car washes/detailing services at most car dealers, too.

    3. Proper wash technique isn’t hard. Buy a foam gun, load it with Meguiar’s Gold Class and a capfull of Optima No-Rinse, and spray the car down. Let the suds work while you fill a clean 5 gallon bucket (with a grit-guard) with clean water. Add a cap full of Optima No-Rinse. Put in 3 thick-piled microfiber wash mitts. (Meguiar’s sells those, too) Then starting with the flat surfaces of the car, spray a panel down with the foam gun and use the microfiber mitt to agitate away the film. If the panel is especially dirty (which it shouldn’t be after the pre-soak got rid of most of the dirt and debris) plunge the mitt in the water bucket and scrub it against the grit-guard with every pass. Continue this process of spraying down the panel with the foam gun and using a CLEAN mitt with light pressure until the car is done. Then dry with a good microfiber waffle-weave drying towel. Takes a whopping 15 minutes on most cars, about 30 on trucks and SUV’s.

    If you want a detailed how-to on wash technique, see JunkMan’s videos on youtube:

    He’s a tad long winded, but you’ll get all your questions answered.

    4. You can minimize the damage the environment does to the vehicle and make washing it much easier with the application of one of the polymer sealants. I’ve been trying Blackfire Crystal Seal lately and so far it does a good job. There are also permanent seals you can apply like Opti-Seal, but those are generally best left to people who have considerable experience applying them due to the permanent nature. Anyone can successfully apply Blackfire Crystal Seal. The polymer sealants, when properly applied, make the finish slick so contaminants and grime washes away much easier, meaning it won’t get ground into the paint when you try to wash the car.

    Once you’ve properly sealed the car, you can use a no rinse wash technique. This involves a 5 gallon bucket of clean water, some Optimum No-Rinse, and a number of clean, good quality microfiber towels. Fill the bucket, pour in the No-Rinse product as directed, add towels, and let them soak. Then you can either just use one wet towel per panel (two per panel if there’s a lot of film to attack) or you can use the foam gun technique and just the towel-per-panel instead of the wash mitt. A good no-rinse technique is great for getting the film from rain off of the finish. It’s not a good technique if you’ve been mudding for reasons that should be obvious.

    5. Your typical commercial car wash sucks. They are like gulags for your clearcoat. This includes “touchless” washes that compensate for not touching the finish by using higher pressure and aggressive solvents (which pushes the grit further into the paint and will eat away your sealant) and doesn’t actually remove the film that accumulates on your paint.

    If you want to go in depth to learn how to keep your car looking new, youtube is your friend. Look for videos from Mike Phillips, AmmoNYC, and JunkMan. Mike Phillips is one of the detailing world’s best known talents, everything I’ve seen from AmmoNYC shows incredible competence and good advice, and JunkMan’s videos are extremely detailed and use solid information.

  • avatar

    I just run my cars through the car wash when they are dirty and need it. I do get the BMW professionally cleaned and waxed annually, will probably get the FIAT done too. And of course, I have to hand wash the Spitfire and the Alfa as I don’t own scuba gear. But I am not particularly precious about any of them – you can’t see swirls from 5 feet away. Also helps to avoid colors that show swirls. I did not follow this with my FIAT though – it is metallic black. Sigh.

  • avatar
    John B

    In the winter, I use a coin operated car wash on my two year old Mazda3. It seems to do a good job; the paint looks fine. I park underground so I can wash the car at lunch and let it dry during the afternoon. I hand wash at home during the summer.

  • avatar

    Nothing but good suggestions here. I pretty much follow the twice a month touchless wash, twice a year wax that most commenters are suggesting. I would also add, I like to do a “leading edge” quick wax before longer trips. If it’s more than a couple hundred miles, I wash the car, then do a quick thin coat of wax on hood, leading edge of fenders and roof, behind wheels, and the mirrors. Makes it that much easier to wash bugs off after the trip, and its another layer of protection from rocks and sand. I spend maybe 10 min on this.

  • avatar

    Another vote of confidence in NuFinish. I just did it a few weeks ago as part of a thorough spring hand wash on my 2012 Civic. Paint is velvet smooth and water beads off beautifully! Yeah it’s labor intensive, but worth it. I handwash after long highway trips where bugs get onto the front, I use a bug spray (citrus based or enzyme-based) and a special netting-covered sponge. Handwashing helps you find nicks to touch up with touch up paint. I’ll add that waxing actually helps the car STAY clean, when it rains, the dirty rain water will bead up and roll off the paint easier than an unwaxed car. When it needs washing in the winter or just a quick once over I use the manual no-touch high pressure soap and rinse at a carwash. Not ideal since the water is recycled and the soap and high pressure can be slightly abrasive, but better than not washing IMO.

    • 0 avatar

      “Yeah it’s labor intensive…”

      Depends on your age. Some of us remember 2-step rubbing compound/polish systems…. the “Holy Crap! It’s all coming off on my rag!” days. So a modern liquid or paste wax with a buffer is a breeze.

      God bless modern top-coating.

  • avatar

    Better late than never, thanks for answering my question.

    Unfortunately I have some bigger issues with keeping my car looking nice now. That shiny drivers side rear quarter panel? Smashed by a co-worker in the parking lot. Just yesterday I discovered a sizable door ding on the passenger side rear door. My little Mazda’s taken a beating in the past few weeks.

    Thanks to everyone for the suggestions, I’m going to sift through everything and try to keep my shiny car shiny for the foreseeable future.

    Oh, and we did end up at the Red Robin after our 5 hour stay at the Mazda dealership. I hazd a cheezburger. Twas delicious.

    • 0 avatar

      Too bad about your quarter panel. Ouch.

      I live about 80 miles south of you, my lazy man’s method to keep your car looking good:

      1. 3M Clear Bra on the front surfaces to eliminate rock chips and insect issues.

      2. Hand wash–on a cloudy day– every month or two with The Solution. I bought a gallon years ago from a friend who restores old cars as a hobby. I don’t know if it’s the best stuff out there, but it seems to do the job. After 6 years in the Oregon rain (and occasional sun), our Honda’s paint looks great.

      That’s it. Leave the waxes and clay bars to the show cars. It’s a Mazda station wagon.

      • 0 avatar

        @Russycle: From my own personal experience as I tend to only own 5-10 year old cars: in the north, some sort of sealant or wax is absolutely necessary to prevent rust. In the south or west it is absolutely necessary to prevent fading. Plus, a quality sealant or wax allows for much faster washing.

        I find that people dismissing proper paint protection off hand are typically just unwilling to take the time to understand and learn how to do it quickly and properly.

        As I said before, it should only take about 2 hours to completely detail a mid size car to what I would say is 90% to perfect – wash the car in citrus wash to remove anything on the surface of the clearcoat, NanoScrub Wash Mitt on the front bumper, rocker panel and mirrors to remove all embedded paint contaminants, all-in-one polish/wax applied with a DA. That’s it – go wash the microfiber towels and watch TV.

        Of course a vehicle that has been abused and has deep swirl marks, scratching, holograms, rock chips, etc will need much more attention and product. But the aforementioned two hour detail once every 3-6 months is sufficient to keep a vehicle looking relatively new for over a decade.

    • 0 avatar

      I was outraged to find a tiny door ding on my 2008 Elantra – right above the driver’s side front wheel well.
      First one ever on this car, as I always park well away from other vehicles, and (in sloped lots) in areas where carts can’t bash in my sheet metal.
      I probably got the ding when my gout was acting up, and I didn’t feel like a long walk through the lot, and I paid for my mistake.

      The best protection for your car’s finish is to keep it away from people who don’t care about their own!

  • avatar

    What I do is I go to a pressure wash place and wash my car once a week – and wax it with quick wax. (I feel the pressure washers take off most of your paste wax so its not worth doing very often).

    I use a two bucket approach (So you rinse of your sponge in one bucket). And I use the pressure wash to fill the buckets and rinse the car.

    Handwashing is the only way to avoid the little scratches. They do however make this stuff called “Wash and Wax anywhere” which you can spray on and dust your car with. (I use two microfiber cloths) one to smooth out the stuff and the other to take it off. Done right you won’t scratch it.

    I wouldn’t use it on a seriously dirty car. My car is generally clean from the once a week wash. Another option would be to use a two bucket approach and a no rinse car wash. I don’t even have a yard so I can’t do that..

    But there has been some improvement in the car wash world. Both the spray on stuff and the no rinse stuff actually seems to work.

    That being said if I had a mazda I would just use the drive through ones. I mean you want it to be clean but its a mazda no offense..dude.

  • avatar

    Its quite funny reading the “detailing guys” comments. The OP asks for the easy way to keep a car looking good and they rattle off a list that I wouldn’t even do and I am pretty OCD about my car, and that’s their “easy list”. “2 thin coats of wax, let each cure overnight… clay bar… etc?? Detailers are kind of like audiophiles, they are extremely critical of anything less than the BEST.

    I am all for hand washing when possible, but the fact is, most people do not have the time to do it properly. I live in Florida and the sun is so hot that water spots form before I even finished one side of the car. It is very hard to find shade where I can also wash. When I hand wash I do it in the evening. It still takes me 2 hrs to do a proper job, and that’s not waxing, that’s just washing. Normal people will not do what I do, let alone what a detail guy will do.

    For what it’s worth, I take all my cars to the car wash a lot and I don’t have a problem with swirl marks, and my car is black. Just keep it waxed and find a good reputable place. A lot of them are owned by real car guys who actually care and do a good job. For what the OP is trying to do, paying $10-12 every couple weeks for a Full Service will be fine. Wax it a couple times a year with some decent wax. I hate NuFinish it looks like some fake gloss coating, I like the carnuba based wax. Or just pay the $30 and have the car wash do it.

    The most important part for you isn’t how you clean it as much as it is keeping it clean. If you let it get bad then getting it looking good again is hard. Just keep it clean and maintain it and the job is easy.

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