The car interior is a harsh environment. It has to deal with extremes of temperature, as well as UV damage that can cause fading or cracking. Then there are deposits from fast food, spilled coffee, animals, babies and so much more. In fact, many interiors could be considered a biohazard and, while shoving your hand down the back of your seats might present a health risk, isn't it time you gave yours a clean?
I'll admit, we're guilty of neglecting our own cars, so over the past few years we've visited our friends at Meguiar's to get a thorough understanding of the correct techniques.
The first article was an exterior car cleaning guide ran in the 12/11 issue of Eurotuner magazine. It can be found under the "Tech" menu at eurotuner.com or by searching for Meguiar's on the homepage.
We followed it up with some wheel cleaning basics in the 9/12 issue of european car magazine, which can be found by conducting the same search at europeancarweb.com
For our third installment, we're concentrating on the best way to clean and deodorize your car's interior, the best products to use for each job and the recommended techniques.
As in the past, we sought Meguiar's help because they offer superb online tutorials and even conduct classes at the corporate headquarters, so the team knows how to educate people. In fact, our day began in the classroom with head teacher and Meguiar's Product Expert, Professor Mike Pennington.
Just like paint and wheel care, using the correct products can maximize your effort, ensuring good results and avoiding potential problems. However, Mike always stresses that whether you're using Meguiar's or any of its competitors' products, always read the label before use. If in doubt, test a small, hidden area first.
Keeping the interior clean is important from a hygiene perspective, as well as maintaining the value of your car. But before you start you need to identify the materials that are used. Generally you will have either cloth, vinyl or leather seats. The leather can be perforated, which introduces different problems, but you might also have suede or microfiber to consider. You will also have glass, plastic, metal, paint and carpet. All these need to be considered when selecting your cleaning products.
You should also assess whether the interior needs to be cleaned/restored or maintained/protected. The former will require a multi-stage process and is generally done before selling a car or when you buy one, or if the interior has been neglected for a while. Simple maintenance/protection is a quicker, one-stage process that can be done on a regular basis along with other car care chores.
When tackling your interior, it's best to start from the top and work down - the headliner to the carpets, for example. This means you're not getting dirt on clean surfaces as you go.
You should also work from the furthest corner towards yourself. So if you're at the driver's door, start in the rear on the passenger's side and move forwards. Again, this prevents you having to go back over areas you've already cleaned.
This may sound obvious but let's start with the basics. So remove all the large objects, such as wrappers, bottles, papers, fries, trash, etc from the interior, including under the seats. Slide the seats backwards and forwards to improve access and clean out the seat runners as you go.
The next step is to vacuum thoroughly. Remove the mats and clean separately out of the car. Use a brush with medium-stiff bristles on the mats and carpet as you vacuum. This will lift the fibers, allowing you to clean deeper into the material, but don't brush so hard you damage the cloth.
Use a soft brush to loosen dirt and dust from the vents, console, radio, heater controls, etc. Don't forget to clean in the folds and pleats in the seats, door panels, etc. You may need to pull the cloth to open these areas but they can conceal a lot of dirt.
Cleaning the headliner is a delicate business. Even if you have a fancy microfiber or leather liner, it's recommended you simply wipe with a cloth dampened in water. Wipe in one direction to prevent the dirt being rubbed in, and fold the cloth regularly to expose a clean surface. If you have dirt that water won't remove, Meguiar's recommends you consult the manufacturer because most cleaning products can remove the dye from the headliner, leaving it blotchy.
The next step is to clean all hard surfaces with something like Meguiar's Quik Interior Detailer. Wiping with a clean cloth will allow you to assess the condition of plastic, vinyl and painted areas such as the dashboard, door cards, console, steering wheel, etc.
For leather, you have two options. You can use a one-step product such as Meguiar's Rich Leather Cleaner/Conditioner if you're just maintaining the interior. While the separate Meguiar's Leather & Vinyl Cleaner can be applied before the Leather Conditioner if the condition of the hide requires it. The two-stage process will clean, moisturize and protect the leather better but it will take you longer.
One caveat is for perforated leather, where a regular cleaning lotion can clog the holes. And since the Porsche we were cleaning had perforated seats, we used the Leather & Vinyl Cleaner spray bottle, but gels are also available.
To clean leather, choose the correct product and apply. In this instance we sprayed it on. Then wipe away with a cotton towel applying medium pressure. Despite the clean appearance, we were surprised to discover the towel was black with dirt after a few wipes. Apply Leather Conditioner to a foam sponge applicator and wipe it over the leather surface. This will fill the microscopic cracks in the leather, provide UV protection and moisturize the hide to reduce further cracking. Many carmakers coat their seats with UV protection but even these surfaces can crack, allowing the conditioner to get into the leather and do its job.
As an experiment, we taped a seat and cleaned/conditioned on one side. Even on black leather, the difference between the treated and untreated sides was stark, reminding us that even if your car looks clean, it can still benefit from these products.
Vinyl surfaces can also benefit from UV Protection and Meguiar's has two products for this job. The Natural Shine Protectant offers a matte finish, while the Supreme Shine Hi-Gloss Protectant does what its name suggests. Both will put up a shield against fading and cracking, helping the interior to look good for longer.
We applied a sample of both products to the vinyl door card on the Porsche to illustrate the difference. Both gave a richer finish than the untouched vinyl but the Hi-Gloss almost has a wet-look. Some people prefer this because they can see it's been cleaned and it wasn't greasy, tacky or wet to the touch, leaving no residue on your hands. We preferred the Natural matte finish, but it's down to individual choice.
Many European cars use a suedette or alcantara-type material on the interior. These synthetic materials are often more resilient than real suede, which tends to polish easily and look worn. However, both the natural and synthetic materials can be difficult to clean because the color dyes are sometimes rather sensitive.
The trick is to clean the surfaces with a damp towel, moving it in one direction only. Areas like a steering wheel or shift knob, which get a great deal of use, should be cleaned often and gently to prevent them getting to the point where you would need to use potentially harmful cleaners.
Remember to be gentle because such materials are easily marked and damaged.
When it comes to carpets and mats, again test a small area using Meguiar's Carpet & Upholstery Cleaner. The bottle allows you to spray a wide or narrow jet, depending on whether you're doing spot or area cleaning.
Having brushed and vacuumed the mat or carpet, apply a small amount of the cleaner to avoid saturation, then remove it with a cotton towel, turning the towel to expose a clean surface as you go. The foaming agent in the cleaner will lift the dirt, while the chemicals will break down grease and stains.
Once finished, you can use a brush to lift the fibers and create patterns such as stripes, sunrise, etc. This is purely for embellishment but it takes a matter of seconds, depending on your ambition.
The first task is to remove unwanted decals, etc using a sharp edge and cleaner. Be careful not to damage any heating or antenna wires that might be on the glass as you do this.
Now you can apply something like Meguiar's Perfect Clarity Glass Cleaner. It's able to produce streak-free cleaning and is ammonia-free, so won't affect window tint - the wrong products can make tint go cloudy if you don't check the label...
Glass is one area where you don't need to be timid with the cleaner. You can apply the amount you need without worrying. This is especially true on new cars that get "vinyl gassing." This is a process where the vinyl parts in your new car give off a gas while curing for the first few months. It can leave a residue on the glass that needs to be removed.
Follow the "Frame, Fill, Flip, Finish" procedure where you take a cotton towel and wipe around the glass by the window frame. Then wipe the glass in the middle, before flipping your towel and finish by wiping in one direction.
When you do the exterior glass, follow the same process but wipe at 90° to the interior. This will allow you to identify if a smear is inside or out.
Always lower the window a few inches to get the top of the glass as well.
Meguiar's PlastX is a clear plastic cleaner and polish, designed specifically for the instrument panel or a convertible's rear window. This also works on headlights and other surfaces, cleaning without scratching, helping to remove any fading or discoloration.
If applying to a convertible window, take great care not to get it on the fabric hood, since it could discolor the material.
Many cars have painted metal surfaces inside. These should be treated like your exterior paint, washing with car soap and water, or simply wiping with Quik Detailer.
If you have polished metal surfaces, such as a metal shift knob, or similar, you can use a metal polish if the previous options don't restore the original shine.
Although technically on the exterior, we didn't look at convertible tops in our previous article, so wanted to cover it here. Meguiar's has a Convertible Top Cleaner but Mike stated that the safest option is soap and water, washing it often to keep it clean - the tops are designed to get wet, so don't worry about the frequency.
If the fabric has been neglected, test a small area with the Meguiar's cleaner and use a very soft brush to agitate the chemicals. Don't use much force, since lifting the fibers can lead to problems.
Some other car care companies offer fabric top protectants (although Meguiar's doesn't), which can be used as specified by the instructions.
Vacuuming and cleaning an interior should shift most odors by removing the source, but it's possible you're left with an unpleasant smell.
The first solution is to use Meguiar's Odor Eliminator. Spray it onto all soft surfaces and areas you can't reach easily such as into vents and under seats, etc. This should encapsulate the smell, trapping it and make removal of the particles easier next time you clean the car.
Alternatively, you can use the Meguiar's Air Re-fresher. It's a fogger can that is placed in the car with the A/C running. Once triggered, it will empty its contents, dispersing into every nook and cranny. This will eliminate odors, replacing it with a "new car smell" that should last a few weeks.
Another option is to change the cabin filter to remove another possible source of odor.
Just as we mentioned in the exterior car care article, cleaning the interior shouldn't be hard work, provided it's done frequently enough. Preventative maintenance is always the best practice because it can prevent problems from staining, taking hold and smelling.
You can clean the interior as often as is necessary. A spill should obviously be dealt with immediately, but cleaning the surfaces and using a vaccum once a week when you wash the car will reduce the amount of work you need to do. However, it's always up to the individual and the state of the car.
If you have specific question about particular surfaces, cleaners or the techniques required, Meguiar's offers some excellent tips and FAQs, as well as informative tutorial videos. Failing that, you can speak to a consultant on the phone.
For our cleaning guide we needed a suitable car and Michael Anderson was kind enough to loan us this '86 Porsche 911 Carrera.
You might have noticed it's a rare factory widebody convertible, finished in white with a black interior and top.
Despite having been a daily driver for his father, Darrel, and recently passing 110,000 miles, it was in remarkably good condition. This was partially explained by it becoming a weekend warrior in the mid-90s, before being passed on to his eldest son, Dwight "Andy" Anderson around 2000.
Andy continues to drive the 911 on weekends, preferring the hills around San Diego County as his playground.
We'd like to thank the entire family for helping us with this story and wish them happy motoring for many more years.