Over 70% of cars are damaged at some point while parked. Yet, only 14% of drivers use car covers. We at Auto Shop Accessories have prepared THE definitive car cover buying guide to build awareness on where and how cars get damaged and how best to protect them.
Why Use a Car Cover?
Cars are big investments, often second only to homes. Car covers help protect that investment in several ways, some obvious and some not. They:
- Prevent debris (e.g., bird poop) from “etching” your clear coat
- Keep sun and damaging storms from oxidizing and corroding paint
- Offer an extra layer of defense against dings and scratches
- Make cars and any items inside less attractive targets for thieves
- Protect car interiors, mainly plastic and leather dashboards, from fading
- Keep cars cleaner for longer, reducing car washing and detailing bills, and
- Help maintain trade-in or resale value.
Their low cost relative to the high average value of cars make the return on investment (ROI) very compelling indeed. This is doubly true for cars that are parked outdoors full time.
A Numerical Overview of How Parked Cars Get Damaged
We surveyed frequent drivers in the U.S to get a better understanding of where they park and what car damage they sustained. The results were pretty eye opening.
The first thing of note is that 70% of cars are basically exposed 24/7. In fact, only about 10% of drivers report parking in garages on a daily basis.
Another key finding is that door dings are common, befalling one-third of drivers. Half of the people who get door dings don’t have their cars repaired. However, for those that do, out-of-pocket costs average $650. These dings and scratches are MOSTLY preventable by using quality car covers made with multi-layer fabrics.
Of the 28% of cars that are robbed, roughly half are the result of stealing items in the front seat that are visible through the windows. Car covers prevent line of sight, thus greatly decreasing chances of being robbed.
Main Causes of Paint Damage (Outdoors)
We have written a detailed overview of all the ways paint can be damaged while parked. While most drivers think of rain, dust and bird poop, the list of damaging elements is much longer than most people expect.
- Bird poop is acidic, and coupled with hot weather, will “etch” clear coat.
- Wet tree leaves contain pollen and tannic acids that cause brown stains, which in turn, often require a professional detailer to remove.
- Tree sap in hot weather becomes a resin and can bond with car paint.
- Sunlight is low-intensity radiation that over time can fade and oxidize paint.
- Salty ocean air in hot climates accelerates and increases the risk of corrosion.
- Critters with claws, such as cats and squirrels, don’t mix with clear coats.
- Sprinkler systems often use “hard” water that leaves deposits of trace minerals that can require a professional detailer to remove.
- Construction sites create debris (e.g., concrete dust) that is highly abrasive to paint.
- Flying gravel and other debris is reported by 20% of people who street park.
- Vandals routinely target cars by “keying” paint, breaking windows/mirrors and dousing with corrosive liquids.
- Rain droplets collect contaminants as they fall to the earth and can become highly acidic resulting in “etching” car paint.
- Sand storms literally “sandblast” cars with wind speeds of 20-65 miles per hour.
- Removing and scraping ice caused by snow storms usually causes more damage than the storm itself.
- Hail storms cause severe damage that only a few specialized car covers can prevent.
Main Causes of Paint Damage (Indoors)
You might think parking indoors protects your car from being damaged. It certainly helps a lot. However, harmful elements exist even in a garage. Three risks are, by far, the most common.
- Dust build up (66%)
- Moisture condensation (42%)
- Scratches from falling clutter and / or pets (41%).
Car covers are highly effective against dust and scratches but cannot prevent condensation. Getting a cover with excellent breathability that allows condensation to evaporate is a must.
Two Categories of Car Covers
The industry categorizes car covers in two different ways:
- Custom fit – Universal Fit
- Indoor – Outdoor.
Custom Fit vs. Universal
Custom fit car covers are designed for a specific make and year model, such as a 2018 Camaro. They are perfectly contoured to fit around mirrors, antennae, spoilers and other standard accessories. The big advantage of custom fit covers is, not surprisingly, their snug fit. They are far less likely to let in dust/debris from underneath or to “flap” against your car’s paint.
Universal car covers are made to fit a wide variety of makes and models. Most universal car covers offer 5-7 different sizes, for example: extra small – cars up to 13 feet long; small – cars up to 14.5 feet, etc. The chief advantage of universal car covers is that they are much more affordable, usually 50-60% cheaper. Their biggest downside is obviously fit. They MIGHT happen to fit your particular car like a glove, but the odds are much lower than with a custom fit car cover.
Indoor vs. Outdoor
The second way to think about car covers is indoor versus outdoor. Indoor covers don’t have to be heavy duty just protect against dust and small scratches. Most of these covers are light and easy to install. Outdoor covers can also be used indoors but not vice versa. They are typically much thicker and made out of multiple layers of treated and woven fabrics.
What to Look for In a Good Car Cover
There are a handful of product characteristics that are important to help identify the best car cover for you and your car:
- Quality of fabric
- Liner softness
Quality of Fabric
Factors that affect the quality of fabric include the type of material, the “weave” of the material and the number of layers. The best car covers are made from woven soft plastics such as polyethylene, polypropylene and nylon.
Tightly woven materials have smaller “pores” that result in less dust and moisture reaching your car’s paint. Multiple layers provide a more robust barrier. High-end, outdoor models often have 5-7 layers to protect against the elements. Additional layers also “thicken” the covers eliminating dings and scratches from all but the most forceful of impacts.
A common question is “will car covers scratch my car’s paint?” The answer is “no” if you purchase a cover with a soft inner lining and keep that lining free from dirt and other abrasive debris. The best inner linings are made from cotton and nylon fleece. These materials provide outstanding protection.
Poly cotton liners are middle of the road and provide good, solid protection. Cheaper budget car covers often don’t have any inner lining at all. That is to say, they are single layer car covers. Often made with 100% polypropylene, these covers can be mildly abrasive over time.
Very few car covers are truly “water proof.” The reason is that waterproof covers would also prevent moisture and condensation trapped underneath from evaporating. Over time, this would result in mold, mildew and corrosion. Woven materials allow trapped moisture to evaporate, which is known as “breathing.” Not all materials are the same. Some breathe better than others. This is a hugely important characteristic, and it is critical to check the reviews for “breathability.”
A good “fit” is tight, covers the entire car, and is secured at the bottom. A tight fit is important so that there is minimal rubbing against the paint even in windy conditions. Another element of fit is that a car cover should extend all the way below the doors and bumpers. Most covers have an elastic hem in the front and back with grommets on the sides. These are great features because they prevent debris from getting on your paint from underneath the cover.
Car covers can and do get stolen, especially when parked on the street for long periods of time. Look for car covers that have grommets that can support a lock-and-cable system. While these do not offer 100% protection against sticky-fingered thieves, they do help. Many budget car covers do not have grommets, so if theft is an issue, take that into consideration when considering your options.
How to Choose an Indoor Car Cover
As we noted above, garage-parked cars face three main risks – dust, accidental scratches and moisture condensation. So, what does this risk profile imply for choosing a cover?
You want one with excellent:
- Dust protection
- Breathability (mold and mildew resistant), and
- Inner liner softness.
If your garage is particularly cluttered and/or you have kids and pets, you might also want to look for a thicker cover that can withstand accidents.
Many manufacturers will rate their products on a scale of 1-5 (5 being the best) in terms of rain, dust, etc., protection. An example might look like:
- Dust protection (5 out of 5)
- Breathability (5 out of 5)
- Liner softness (5 out of 5)
- Rain protection (0 out of 5)
- Sun protection (0 out of 5)
- Snow protection (0 out of 5).
This is the classic indoor-only profile. The only other considerations are price and ease of installation and storage. In terms of price, budget models can be found for around $30 with ultra-premium models ranging from $150-$300.
How to Choose an Outdoor Car Cover
Choosing an outdoor car cover is more complicated. Key questions to ask include:
- What is the weather like where you live?
- Will your car be parked for long periods of time?
- Where do you park?
- Are there any other hazards to your car’s paint? (e.g., ash from frequent forest fires)
The basic idea is simple. Match the strengths of the car cover you are considering to the risks of where you live. Weather is almost always the single biggest factor. If you live in Phoenix Arizona, UV and dust protection are paramount. Rain is much less of an issue, and unless you go skiing, snow protection is not a concern at all.
On the other hand, if you live in Miami, UV protection is still needed, but moisture resistance is key. Also, because of the humidity, you would want the best possible rating for breathability to prevent mold and mildew growth.
Beyond weather, also think about where you park. If you have to frequently park near a construction site, concrete dust is highly abrasive. Get a car cover with the absolute highest dust and breathability ratings.
The good news is that many manufacturers offer mid- to ultra-premium options that achieve excellent scores across the board – rain, sun, dust, snow, and breathability. If you live in a harsh climate, investing a few extra dollars in one of these “all arounders” is almost certainly worth it.
The most common accessories are:
- Cable and lock kits
- Gust straps/wind protectors
- Storage bag.
Cable and lock kits usually contain a plastic-coated steel cable and a weather-proof lock. One end of the cable will have a loop and the other an eyelet. The eyelet-end of the cable is threaded through the grommet and the loop end to secure one side. It is then ran underneath the car and locked on the other side. While the kit won’t stop a truly determined thief, it does provide an extra barrier and layer of protection.
Gust strap kits include plastic clips that that clip over the elastic hem on each side of a car cover. They are primarily for covers that don’t have grommets. The clips have eyelets that accommodate bungee cord hooks. The bungee cord is run underneath the car and secured to a clip that has been placed on the other side.
Even budget car covers usually come with storage bags these days. That said, not all do. Unless car covers are rolled up tightly, they take up a lot of space and are unwieldy. Some kind of storage bag is a must.
Many premium covers will include all the accessories you need. Just check the product listings before ordering to be sure.
How to Install
Hint: it’s not that different from installing a fitted bed sheet. After a little practice, it should take no more than 1-2 minutes to install, even if securing the bottom with wind straps.
- Identify the front of the car cover (some have tags designating the front from the back).
- Roll the cover (still folded in half) longways across the top of the car starting from the front.
- Fold the cover out so that it spans the entire top of the car.
- Secure the front by tucking the elastic hem under both sides of the front bumper.
- If the cover has mirror pockets, place the pockets over the mirrors.
- Pull the back of the cover tight and over the back bumper.
- If the car cover has a strap-and-buckle system, run the strap underneath the car and pull until the car cover is secured tightly.
Here is a good video that walks through how to install and what to do with external antennae the first time a cover is installed.
Care and Maintenance
The basic rule of thumb is an obvious one. If your car cover gets dirty, wash it. A dirty exterior is mainly about appearance and perhaps, keeping your clothes from getting filthy while installing or removing your cover.
Cars accumulate dirt and grime virtually every time they are driven. Some of that grime will inevitably rub off on the inner lining each time you install or remove your cover. Check the inner lining every week or so. If it is visibly dirty or if it feels “grainy,” wash it. Even a high quality interior lining with dirt and dust on it can damage paint.
Some are machine washable and will say so in the product description. Be careful though, as some can only be washed in machines without agitators. Others can be machine washed but not put in a dryer. Again, always read the product materials first.
The other method of washing a car cover is to use a hose and wash it while installed. To wash the interior, merely install the cover inside-out and rinse thoroughly. Covers can be left on cars to dry.
What Are the Leading Brands?
- Classic Accessories
- Duck Covers
- Honda OEM
- Leader Accessories
- Motor Trend
- West Coast Camaro
Frequently Asked Questions
Do car covers damage car paint?
Car covers are obviously designed to protect your clear coat but can cause damage in some circumstances. For paint to be damaged by a car cover two things have to happen: (1) the material has to be (or become) abrasive, and (2) that material must rub or flap against the car.
The “abrasive” part can happen with a cheap car cover that has no inner lining. A lot of the truly budget products are made from polypropylene that is slightly abrasive. Also, even expensive car covers can do damage if they get grime and dust on the inner lining. If you have a nice car and the lining looks dirty, wash it. Don’t wait.
The second thing needed to cause paint damage is friction or movement. If you expect high winds, make sure eveything is tied down to be as snug as possible. The looser it is, the more it will rub against the paint.
Are car covers truly “waterproof?”
Something like a rubber tarp is waterproof, but those types of covers create so many problems (e.g., rust and mildew) that they are, for all intents and purposes, not sold as serious alternatives. In terms of mainstream, “woven” car covers, these are not truly waterproof no matter what manufacturers claim. If a car cover is left in an intense storm long enough, water will get through.
Most car covers are actually “moisture resistant” as opposed to “100% waterproof.” All of the above notwithstanding, the best car covers do such a good job of keeping water off your car that they are effective 95+% of the time, and buyers of these covers are very happy.
Can I put a wet cover on a car?
Yes, as long as your cover has sufficient “breathability” to allow any trapped moisture to evaporate before mildew or corrosion become an issue.
Do car covers prevent dings and dents?
Good quality car covers will certainly prevent a lot of dings and dents. However, if a car is hit with enough force, it will get dented whether it is covered or not. If dings are a concern, a thicker cover with more layers will provide better protection. Higher quality covers are often made with 5-7 layers of woven material, including a soft inner lining. These car covers provide excellent protection against most dings.
Are the best car cover brands worth the money?
For most people, the answer is “yes.” The reason is the low cost of even a nice car cover relative to the value of your car makes for a good ROI. Factor in that the best car covers keep vehicles cleaner for much longer, and the math becomes even more compelling. Go to the car wash 6 times per year, versus 12 times, and your car cover has effectively paid for itself.
Is a custom-fit car cover worth the extra cost?
Again, most likely “yes,” although this question is a little more complicated. A good, snug fit is a very desirable trait, and one generally worth “paying up” to get. Custom fit covers, as the name implies, almost always fit well. However, most universal car covers come in multiple sizes. There are always some car models that universal covers fit like a glove. Read the reviews to get an idea. If a universal cover happens to fit your make and model well, you may be able to save some money.
Do I need separate indoor and outdoor car covers?
The short answer is “no, but.” While an indoor car cover is not suited for outdoor use, outdoor models work fine indoors. However, some people prefer to have a dedicated indoor car cover because: (a) these covers are usually lighter and easier to install, and (b) they tend to stay cleaner much longer than outdoor covers.
Will my car cover fade?
Yes, but at least it’s your $100 cover and not your much more expensive car. The less flip answer is that most car covers fade over time, but those made with high quality materials and coated with UV protection don’t fade very quickly. Also, fading on lighter colors like tan and grey, will be much less noticeable than red, black and navy blue.
Does a car cover help prevent my car from being robbed?
Yes, they help in a couple of ways. First, half of car robberies are from visible items being stolen from inside the car. A car cover makes it virtually impossible to see in a car and thus helps prevent these “crimes of opportunity.”
The second main way car covers help is that they are a barrier that slow thieves down, especially if secured with a lock. Most thieves don’t want to take any extra chances, and a cover presents an extra obstacle for them to overcome.
What are some cool “hacks?”
I have two personal favorites. First is labeling the front and back to make installation quick and easy. This is especially helpful if less experienced people (e.g., family members) will occasionally be doing the installation. My other favorite “hack” is if you need to wash the inner lining of your car cover, install it inside-out on the car before washing. Leaving it on after washing is the fastest way to dry it.
How do I fold and store my car cover?
If you think about it, a car cover with an elastic hem is built exactly like a fitted bed sheet. Simply hold it hem-side up and then lay it on its side. Be sure the cover is flat with no air pockets and fold it in half a couple of times. At this point you have two choices. First, you can roll it up like a sleeping bag. Alternatively, you can fold in 1-2 foot increments until it fits in your storage bag.
Should I use a cover on a vehicle that is being moved (e.g., being towed, hauled on an open trailer)?
No. If a car is being towed or hauled, the winds will cause the cover to “flap” against the paint with much more force than if parked. Also, it is easier for debris to get underneath the cover while being transported. Just like the “do car covers damage paint” question above, abrasive debris and friction are a recipe for problems.
What do I do if my car has an antenna?
Most car covers come with an included solution. Just check the product description to be sure. Install the cover and mark where the antenna intersects the cover. This can be a bit challenging if the antenna is not removable, so some trial and error may be needed. Install the (usually) included grommet where marked. A grommet is a ring or “eyelet.” Simply cut out the material inside the grommet and check to make sure that they antenna fits through the grommet.
How can I prevent my car cover from being stolen?
Most better brands come with grommets to allow covers to be tied down in windy weather. The best way to secure your cover is to buy a purpose made cable and lock and run the cable through the grommet and underneath the car. These cables and lock systems are widely available online.
Should I tie my car cover down if it has an elastic hem?
It depends. Tying a cover down will create a snugger fit, which is always a good thing. However, if you’re parking for a short duration and the weather is mild, tying may be overkill.