These Car Vacuums Suck, But In a Good Way
If it’s what’s inside that counts, don’t neglect your car’s interior.
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Saturday morning feels like National Wash-Your-Car Day. We wash, wax, and shine; even the tires get attention. But how many of us pack it in and congratulate ourselves on a job well done without ever looking inside? If your car only looks clean from the outside, it’s time to up your game. Just like the polishes and waxes that treat paint, chrome, and wheels, the best way to clean your car’s interior is with a car vacuum. Rather than dragging dirt across your interior with a rag or giving up after shaking your floor mats out, suck up all that unwanted grime with a vacuum that’s built for the job. But what’s the best car vacuum for your needs? We tested some of the top brands on the market and came up with several favorites.
Black & Decker Max Flex Lithium
- Flexible hose makes it easy to clean hard-to-reach places
- Power was far better than expected at this price
- Design requires two-handed operation
- Can cause dust to scatter
- Rather loud for a small device
- Build quality is top-notch and features are intuitive to use
- Attachments are well-designed and effective
- Struggled with large debris
- Not quite as efficient as the competition
Shop-Vac Classic Wet Dry Vacuum
- Renowned brand synonymous with wet/dry vacuum cleaners
- Powerful suction
- Long hose
- Large bucket and long hose limit portability
- Too much machine for quick clean-ups
How We Tested
You (hopefully) wouldn’t try to clean the outside of your car with dish soap and a sponge, so why would you drag your household vacuum around to clean the inside of your car? Using the right equipment will save you time, make the job easier, and leave you with a cleaner car.
Not surprisingly, small handheld vacuums are generally more popular for automotive use. Going cordless is a major advantage when you’re crawling around in footwells and trunks.
Power also played an important role. Some vacuums in our comparison lined up right where we expected. But others surprised us.
To put these vacuums to the test, we subjected each one to everyday cleaning duties. They were pitted against dirt, sand, dry grass, and plenty of pet hair. Several cleanings provided a solid understanding of each vacuum’s capabilities and limitations.
We also created a side-by-side test to help visualize the variation in performance. Each vacuum got an opportunity to do its best work against three common culprits: potting soil, snack mix, and dried grass. Not content to just sprinkle debris on the fabric flooring, we ground each pile into the carpet to simulate wear and tear.
Every dog lover knows that pet hair is the ultimate test for any car vacuum. So we gathered up as much as Annie would allow and tossed it about, too.
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Our reviews are driven by a combination of hands-on testing, expert input, “wisdom of the crowd” assessments from actual buyers, and our own expertise. We always aim to offer genuine, accurate guides to help you find the best picks.Learn more
Best Car Vacuum Reviews & Recommendations
- Model: BDH2020FL
- Surfaces: Multi-surface
- Weight: 3.2 pounds
- Powerful suction on first pass
- Excellent pet hair pickup
- Great for detail work
- Exhaust can send pet hair and dust flying when filter is full
- Loud motor
- Model: WV200
- Surfaces: Multi-surface
- Weight: 1.4 pounds
- Comes with a number of useful attachments
- Attachments provide good versatility
- Swivels and fits into slim spaces
- Shape makes it tricky to get into tight spaces
- Can struggle with large debris
- Model: 5980527
- Surfaces: Multi-surface
- Weight: 14 pounds
- Serious suction power
- Huge collection bin holds plenty of dirt and debris
- Comes with detailing accessories
- Long hose gives you flexibility
- Short power cord
- Bucket isn’t convenient in shape or size
- Model: 18P03
- Surfaces: Carpet, hard floors, and upholstery
- Weight: 33.2 pounds
- Lengthy hose offers great reach
- Includes wall mount
- Wet/dry functionality is ideal for all types of messes
- Includes attachments for versatile cleaning
- Has to be hard-mounted to a wall
- Model: NV356E S2
- Surfaces: Carpet and hard flooring
- Weight: 13.7 pounds
- Can be used throughout your home and for auto detailing
- Long, flexible hose offers reach
- Full-size electric motor
- More than enough suction
- Cumbersome and not maneuverable
- Must stay plugged in to be used
- Model: AA255
- Surfaces: Multi-surface, including wet surfaces
- Weight: 7.7 pounds
- Impressive suction power
- Picks up big messes and spills
- Works on wet and dry surfaces
- Easy to maneuver
- Doesn’t include wheels
- Model: 7553
- Surfaces: Multi-surface
- Weight: 1.14 pounds
- 15 minutes of runtime on a single charge
- Fits in your glove compartment
- Convenient for small messes
- Limited dust collector capacity
- Not a lot of power or suction
- Model: SD30025B
- Surfaces: Multi-surface, with a special tool for carpet
- Weight: 3 pounds
- Lightweight and nicely maneuverable
- Can be used one-handed
- Fantastic at detailing and cleaning carpet
- Gets into small spaces easily
- Has to be plugged in to operate
Our Verdict on Car Vacuums
The best overall value when it comes to automotive vacuum cleaners is by far the Black+Decker Max Flex Lithium. Its suction and maneuverability made it a clear favorite in our hands-on test. Car owners looking for serious value should consider the Shark WandVac for use in the car and around the house.
When we start shopping for tools and products, we never overlook the secondhand market. In fact, it’s usually the first place we look. Whether you’re scrolling through Amazon’s Renewed section, eBay for car parts or tools, or flipping through the pages of Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist, you have hundreds of thousands of used tools, parts, and gear ready to be shipped to your doorstep. Refurbished to like-new status, they’ll be willing to give you many more years of faithful service all while saving you money. It also has the benefit of you not having to cut open an Amazon box inside an Amazon box with bubble wrapped around the part.
If those options above don’t have what you need, your local salvage yard is great for car parts, while swap meets are a great resource you should absolutely tap. Just Google either and head on down.
To make your secondhand search easier, here are two tips for finding the best deals and making sure your new-to-you stuff wasn’t destroyed by the previous owner.
- If possible, inspect the used vacuum in person. Look for visible defects, such as dents. Make sure the filtration system is in good working order. Look at the filter to see what kind of shape it is in. The good news is that filters can either be replaced or cleaned.
Check the hose for cracks by stretching it out. Examine the cord and make sure it's solid without any cuts or frays.
- Plug in the vacuum to make sure that it powers up. Then check the switches to ensure that they're operational. Test all the speeds and options, and test the attachments to make sure they function properly. Avoid machines that rattle, make unusual noises or emit an unpleasant odor that may be related to the motor.
What to Consider When Buying a Car Vacuum
As you consider and compare different types of car vacuums, there are plenty of similarities and differences to take a look at. We’re simplifying things for you so you can easily pinpoint which vacuums are worth your time and how to get the most out of your purchase.
Types of Car Vacuums
The cleaning power of handheld and/or cordless vacuums isn’t as strong as you might like, but the tradeoff in maneuverability is almost certainly worthwhile. Small, cordless vacuums get into all those nooks and crannies with just the right attachments.
Wet/Dry Shop Vacuum
Never underestimate the mighty shop vacuum. These garage favorites gained popularity for sucking up everything from dirt and sawdust to rainwater, snowmelt, and spills. Power is not an issue here, and shop vacuums typically have long, flexible hoses that reach into your car’s more remote areas. Portability can be an issue, though, so these vacuums are best thought of as all-rounders.
Odds are, you already have a vacuum around the house. So why would you buy another one just for car cleaning duty? As anyone who’s used a household vacuum to detail their car can tell you, it’s possible — but it ain’t pretty. Bulky upright vacuums with short hoses make it difficult to reach inside your car, and you can count on banging the vacuum into your paint at least once per cleaning. Go ahead and use one in a pinch, but you’ll want something else for regular cleanings.
Car Vacuum Key Features
Cleaning a car is different from cleaning a house. You don’t need attachments for broad expanses of shag carpet and wood floor; you need skinny little nozzles to get in those crevices and brushes to protect delicate surfaces. Any good car vacuum will have the attachments you need to do the job right.
Wall outlets provide the most power, but sometimes that’s not the most important consideration. Most dedicated car vacuums use battery power so you can move freely and get in all those hard-to-reach places like cupholders and under the seats. Most batteries have no problem lasting long enough for several thorough cleanings.
Small vacuums are easier to maneuver inside a vehicle than larger ones, and some are portable enough to keep in the trunk so they’re ready whenever you need them. Go ahead: make quick work of unexpected spills and clean up unsightly dog hair before giving your boss a ride.
Car Vacuum Pricing Considerations
Many entry-level car vacuums are affordable and less than $100. They're great for quick, easy cleanups. If you spend between $100 and $150, you'll have more options and reputable brands that produce good-performing machines. These vacuums will also include more advanced features, compact sizes, and stronger motors. Should you decide to splurge and spend over $150, you'll find the highest-quality options, many of which are versatile enough to use around the home as well as in your vehicle.
Tips and Tricks
As with something you do for decades upon decades, you pick up a few tips and tricks along the way in terms of selecting the right product, and/or using it. That’s the case with us and car vacuums. To help you bridge the information gap, here’s a selection of what we’ve learned along the way.
- Vacuums need to breathe in order to suck. Empty the dust collector frequently to avoid power loss caused by reduced airflow.
- Take advantage of the accessories provided. Use soft attachments to protect more delicate surfaces from scratches, and get into tight spaces with precision nozzles.
- “Buy once, cry once,” as they say. Quality car vacuums cost more, but they’ll last longer and perform better than inexpensive alternatives.
You’ve got questions. The Drive has answers.
Q: How often should I empty my vacuum?
A: Every time you use it. Over time, debris will pack into your vacuum’s filter and impair its ability to produce suction. To keep it performing at its best, clean the dust collector and clean the filter before or after every use. Besides, the dirt and grime you clean up is gross, and food particles can attract vermin and insects. You don’t want to leave stuff festering in your vacuum.
Q: What kinds of messes can a car vacuum clean up?
A: Car vacuums are great for cleaning up dirt, grass, pet hair, and the small bits of debris that make our cars look worse for the wear. Some are even capable of cleaning up wet messes like mud, slush, and spilled drinks. Before attempting to suck up liquid though, make sure your vacuum is designed for it to avoid costly damage.
Q: Do I need to buy extra attachments or filters?
A: Most car vacuums come with a variety of attachments. At the very least, expect to get a brush and various sizes of nozzles. Some even come with attachments specifically designed to clean up stubborn pet hair. Quality vacuums from respected manufacturers usually offer replacement filters.
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