Top Ten SUV Detailing Tips

How to care for your SUV's exterior and interior

Go beyond the car wash, and detail your SUV. Photo © Jason Fogelson

You've invested a ton of dough on your new SUV. The best way to protect your investment is with regular maintenance. A good mechanic can handle the engine, transmission and electrical system. A good detailer can do wonders for the interior and exterior.

Most of us won't do much work under the hood beyond the occasional oil and filter change. But almost all of us can attack the task of washing, cleaning and detailing our SUVs on our own.

I've collected the Top Ten Tips for Detailing Your SUV to help you on your way.

Tip #1: First, do no harm.

Much like the medical profession, auto detailers have to make careful, critical assessments when they work on their patients. When will removing that stain cause more damage to a car seat's fabric than a simple cleaning? Is a deep polish going to remove more fragile paint than protecting it with paste wax? Like a good doctor, the detailer has to be certain that the cure isn't worse than the disease.

Tip #2: Protect your SUV from the elements.

Sun, wind and rain are your SUV's worst enemies. Left unprotected in the elements, an SUV will deteriorate and eventually rust away, becoming a better planter box than a mode of transportation within a few years. Unless you're a collector with a big storage warehouse, you can't keep your vehicle out of the elements all the time. After all, you probably have to drive to work!

But try to keep your SUV out of harm's way whenever possible. If you've got a garage, clear enough space to park inside. If you can't get in the garage, consider buying a cover like one from California Car Cover or a canopy like the EZ Up Eclipse II ($559 to $1,001) to park under. Look for shade when you park at work or at the store.

Think about leaving your SUV in the garage when really bad weather is predicted, like hail or snow storms.

Tip #3: Inspect your SUV.

Finding that small problem before it becomes a big one will help keep your auto detailing simpler and more effective. Make it a habit to give your SUV a good once-over on a regular basis, at least once a month. Check all of the paint for dirt and sediment. Check the chrome for pitting and rust. Check the tires and wheels for scrapes and discoloration. Look around the interior for dirt, debris and stains.

Tip #4: Wash your SUV regularly.

The best way to maintain a good finish on your SUV is to keep it clean. Keeping your SUV protected (Tip #2) will help, but your vehicle will still need to be washed. Once a month is good, twice a month is even better. Don't wait for a good coat of dirt and dust to collect -- the longer dirt sits on your paint, the better chance it has of binding with the clear coat, requiring more aggressive cleaning. Use a car-specific wash like Mothers' California Gold Car Wash or Meguiar's Gold Class Car Wash.

Tip #5: Maintain a good coat of wax.

Once your SUV is clean, it's important to put a good coat of wax on. The wax acts as a protectant, keeping dirt and dust from binding to your clear coat and paint.

Wax also acts as a moisture barrier, keeping water from penetrating pores in the painted surfaces and getting to the metal below. It's easy to tell if you've got a good coat of wax. Water will bead up on a good coat of wax, forming small round blobs, rather than big pools on flat surfaces. When the beads get too big, it's time to apply a new coat of wax. Try a liquid application like Turtle Wax Performance Plus.

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Tip #6: Avoid scratches -- soft surfaces only.

Scratches are the enemy of a paint job. Not only are they unsightly, they allow contaminants to get under their surface, further eroding an area until paint eventually fails. Big scratches are obvious -- but even tiny scratches are dangerous. Use the softest possible materials when you detail your SUV. Never use scouring pads, steel wool or sandpaper to remove dirt from paint.

Soft terrycloth is great. Many professional detailers have migrated to microfiber, a synthetic material that is highly absorbent, very soft, and very consistent.

Tip #7: Flip that rag.

A good detail job can be wasted through false economy. Don't try to make that rag or towel go farther by using it over and over. You won't see a good professional detailer passing a dirty rag over a clean surface. Flip your rag over frequently, and use a clean surface to dry, wipe and polish with. When a rag's clean surfaces are used up, flip it aside and pick up a fresh one. Otherwise you're just moving contaminants and dirt from one part of your SUV to another.

Tip #8: Less is more.

One clear sign of a bad detail job comes a week later. The formerly glistening dashboard now looks gluey, and is sticky to the touch. Somebody forgot Tip #8: Less is more. Using too much vinyl dressing, like Armorall (http://www.armorall.com), is worse than using none at all.

Vinyl, leather and rubber can only absorb so much dressing before they become saturated, and additional dressing sits on the surface. For the first day or so, it looks great, with that wet look we all admire. But then the surface dressing attracts dust and dirt, mixing together to become a sticky mess.

Use dressing sparingly, and dust surfaces regularly with a soft cloth or static brush.

Tip #9: Use quality, automotive formulas.

It's time to detail the SUV. Should you grab some dish soap, a little Lemon Pledge and a spray bottle of Fantastic, and head out to the driveway? Absolutely not. Automotive surfaces require specially-formulated cleaners, polishes and waxes to achieve the longest life and best looks. Look in the pro detailer's kit, and you'll see pro-level sprays, liquids and solids. Luckily, pro-quality formulas abound at your local auto parts store and on the web. Several manufacturers sell full line professional interior and exterior systems to the public, like Meguiars and Mothers, or you can mix and match your favorites from various companies. Buy the best that you can afford, and keep it simple.

Tip #10: Start gently, then get more aggressive.

Before you attack that stain with a harsh solvent and a wire brush, try a light mist of distilled water and a soft sponge. Before you hack away at that dried bird dropping with a putty knife, try leaving a hot moist towel on the surface for ten minutes. Before you blast that spot of rusty chrome with a power grinder, try gently rubbing with a soft, wet cloth.

You may be surprised how effective a little patience, a little light pressure and a little plain water can be. If the gentlest methods don't work, gradually increase the aggression. Use a gentle cleanser first. Use the mildest chemicals, the softest abrasives, gradually working up in grit until the problem disappears. You can always get tougher with a problem -- the trick is not to make things worse while trying to make them better.

Detailing can be a great way to bond with your SUV, and to make your investment go farther, longer and better. Hopefully these tips will help you and your ride along the way.