Fall in love with your car again without breaking the bank

Simple improvements to help you rediscover your ride.

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We used to have a joke in our family. I’d wash the family beater, gas it up and then say to my kids, “See how much better it runs now?” Then, based on their skeptical faces, I’d add, “It’s scientifically proven.”

Your perception of your car, how it looks and how it drives, might be more important than the car itself. So if you hate your current ride and lust after the constant parade of hot metal advertised on TV, here’s how to rekindle the flame for your car.

Spit and polish

You may think detailing an old heap like yours is a waste of time and money. Quite the opposite. You can even find a mobile detail guy on Yelp to do the in-depth cleaning and waxing while your car is parked at the curb and you’re inside binge-watching Netflix.

A good detail job can run more than $100, so if that’s over your car budget, just go to a coin car wash and do the work yourself. For about five bucks you can wash away weeks of crud and rediscover the sparkle in your paint job. Also — and this is super important — vacuum the interior. As you do, you’ll be motivated to get the fast-food wrappers out of the back seat.

If you’ve got a little more to spend, consider these:


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Fresh start

Check your tires’ tread depth and think about getting your baby new shoes (that’s car guy talk for buying a set of tires).

It’s amazing the difference this makes in the way the car looks, sounds, rides and handles. Plus, that’s one less thing that could maroon you by the side of the road.

Another confidence builder is to buy a new battery, because they become less reliable after about three years and can leave you stranded with little warning. There’s nothing worse than having to hang around a 7-Eleven parking lot late at night, plaintively asking, “Hey, man, got any jumper cables?”

As for improving the looks of my old beaters, here’s my secret. New floor mats. Yes, really. Here’s why.

What’s the first thing you see when you open your car door? Where are all the nasty smells stored? And, even more practically, is there a safety hazard down there? If your current floor mats are curled up like giant potato chips, they could slide onto your gas pedal and pin it to the floor.

Sweet spot

To feel good about your car, repair, replace or clean everything around the driver’s seat. This is where you spend your time, so if it looks clean and new to you, you’ll assume the rest of the car is clean, too. Here’s an example of how powerful that can be.

Some years ago, I worked for a car company and our president decided to sell his Toyota Prius, which had a fuzzy tan cloth interior. He asked me to take it to the car wash before he listed it.

Our president was a big guy who apparently sweated a lot, since the driver’s-side armrest, which was supposed to be tan and fuzzy, was shiny and black. It was, frankly, disgusting. I figured no one would buy the car because of this one glaring problem. So, while the car was being washed, I bought a can of upholstery foam with a built in-brush.

On the way back to the office, I parked on a quiet street. I then foamed the armrest as if it were a hazmat site and began scrubbing. Soon, rivulets of black goo were running down the door panel and dripping on the ground. But when I was done, the armrest smelled great, and it was once again tan and fuzzy. In fact, it looked so good I decided to buy the car.

I was so impressed with the armrest cleaning that I had the interior steam-cleaned for $110. Then, for the final touch, I bought authentic Toyota floor mats on eBay Motors for $80. I felt like I was driving a brand-new car.

Ditch the dents

Another quick and easy fix is to hire a mobile paintless dent remover and get all the dings and dents popped out of the doors. Paintless dent removers are like sculptors, patiently massaging metal back into the right shape. You can often negotiate a reduced price for removing three or four of these indiscretions in one session, setting you back about $200. When the job is done, you’ll look at your car with new eyes and think, “Why did it take me so long to do that?”

So if you hate your car, if it smells and has french fries under the seats, you don’t have to buy a new one to fall in love again. Clean it up, get the junk out of it and buy new floor mats. You’ll save a ton of money. And the next time you open the door to climb in, you’ll say, “I can’t believe I ever thought of selling you.”

This article was written by NerdWallet. Philip Reed is an automotive expert who writes a syndicated column for NerdWallet.

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