Hands-On Review: Get Showroom-Clean With These Car Vacuums
Looking for the best car vacuum? These eight contenders really suck.
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BY Scott Murdock / LAST UPDATED ON April 12, 2021
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.
Rather than just shaking your floor mats out, suck up all that unwanted grime with a car 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.
The most compact and maneuverable vacuum on this list; passes the pet-hair test with flying colors.
- 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
Versatility is the name of the game for this cordless vacuum. It’s just as useful around the house as it is in the car.
- 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
If outright power is what you need to tackle big messes, Shop-Vac is still the go-to brand in vacuums.
- 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
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All of our reviews are based on market research, expert input, or practical experience with most products we include. This way, we offer genuine, accurate guides to help you find the best picks.
How We Tested These Car Vacuums
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 fantastic for automotive use. Going cordless is a major advantage when you’re crawling around in footwells and trunks, too.
So how did we come up with the right car vacuums to test? And how did we end up with these top contenders? Power and mobility played the most important roles. We also looked at versatility and ease of use. And, of course, value for the price.
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.
And every dog lover knows that pet hair is the ultimate test for any car vacuum. So we gathered up as much hair as Annie would allow, and tossed it about, too.
Some of the vacuums in our comparison lined up right where we expected. Others surprised us. But first, the nitty-gritty.
Benefits of Car Vacuums
- Maneuverability. Large vacuums offer more outright power, but that doesn’t mean you want to crawl around your car dragging a full-size household vacuum.
- 12-volt power. Some car vacuums let you tap into your car battery for a quick cleanup without worrying about charging.
- Purpose-built features. Cleaning your car requires attachments and capabilities that other situations don’t call for, so your best bet is to get a tool designed for the job.
- Stay clean on the go. When your vacuum is portable, you can keep it handy to clean your car on the go, and stop apologizing for a messy interior.
Types of Car Vacuums
The more you know!
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.
Here are the players.
You might recognize Shark by the bagless and modern design. Aside from being powerful and easy to use, Shark vacuums tend to draw slightly less electricity than many other vacuums of comparable size. This extra efficiency is a nice bonus that makes this high-end brand affordable. Shark’s Navigator upright vacuum and WandVac handheld system are some of the brand’s best.
Black+Decker is no stranger to quality tools, and the brand brings the same standards to its car vacuums. Rather than lock horns with the heavy-hitters in the premium household segment, B+D focuses on affordability. Its handheld vacuums are great for car-cleaning duty as well as cleaning up around the garage without the constraints of a corded vacuum. The Dustbuster is always a crowd favorite, and we appreciate the extra maneuverability of the Max Flex Lithium handheld vacuum.
What would a garage be without a Shop-Vac? These beefy roller vacuums have long been a go-to for automotive cleanup and construction site cleanliness thanks to their durability, powerful suction, and ability to handle wet and dry messes without skipping a beat. Size and portability can be limiting factors, but versatility makes the Shop-Vac a serious contender for any car enthusiast.
Car Vacuum Pricing
Money, money, money!
- Under $100: Entry-level. If you need a quick, simple solution for occasional clean-ups, this can be a great way to go.
- Between $100 and $150: You’ll find plenty of the brands you know and trust in this price range. You’ll also get more into compact vacuums, advanced features, and more powerful motors.
- More than $150: Vacuums in this price bracket offer premium features and quality. Many of these tend to be fairly versatile, so they’re more than capable of picking up extra cleaning duty around the house.
What should you look out for?
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.
- Build quality: A car vacuum might not be the most exciting automotive purchase you make, but it will be a lot more enjoyable if you buy a quality item the first time.
- Power source: Are you more likely to vacuum as part of your car wash routine, or as messes happen? If you plan on cleaning as you go, prioritize a cordless option.
- Capabilities: Even similarly priced car vacuums can offer different advantages. Think about things like wet/dry vacuums, portability, and multifunctional attachments.
Best Car Vacuum Reviews & Recommendations in 2021
The Last Word
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.
FAQs on Car Vacuums
You've got questions, The Drive has answers!
Q: How much does a car vacuum cost?
A. Most car vacuums from the major manufacturers cost between $100 and $150. Less expensive options are available, but they generally offer fewer features, generate less suction, and typically don’t last very long. But hey, you get what you pay for. By investing in a premium car vacuum, you’ll be able to get your car cleaner and spend less money in the long run.
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.
- 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.