How to Prevent Scratches, Swirls on a Black Car

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2015 Mercedes-Benz C300 long-term test car;

CARS.COM — Maintaining a black car's exterior is an intimidating experience considering a single finger swiped across the paint can show a noticeable blemish. Cars.com's long-term 2013 Subaru BRZ test car's Crystal Silica Black looked awful after 14,000 miles of not-so-great paint care, and we vowed to never own a black car again. We didn't have much choice when it came time to buy our 2015 Mercedes-Benz C300 long-term test car; black is the most popular C300 color in Cars.com national inventory of 2015 and 2016 models, and our car came with the right options and price.

Related: More on Cars.com's Long-Term 2015 Mercedes-Benz C300

Nationally, however, the color silver led the list in Axalta's Global Automotive Color Popularity report for 2014, with black a close runner-up. With so many cars coming off the assembly line with fresh coats of deep, glossy black paint, we gathered tips from car-care experts on how to keep that luster looking as good as new.

Truth is, a black car doesn't scratch more easily than any other color; the tips below will help keep any car's paint color free of scratches and swirls. Modern cars use clear-coat paint, and what you're actually washing and working with is the top layer of clear coat; the colored paint sits underneath this protective coating. A scratch in the clear coat appears white in all cars but contrasts with the black paint to create a more noticeable blemish, said Mike Pennington, global director of training at Meguiar's, a manufacturer of car-care products.

Dirt Is Your Enemy

Clearly, right? Why else would you be washing your car? But what's really happening is the fine scratches and swirls you see in a black-painted car's reflection are typically the result of careless, preventable car-washing techniques. Cobweb-like swirls and scratches can look like a bad machine detail even though they're inflicted by washing techniques.

"If there's dirt, then you're grinding it into the paint. The whole idea is to not scrub the paint. And that's important in a black car because every scratch will show," said Mike Phillips, director of training at Autogeek.net, a car-care vendor and enthusiast detailing forum.

Cobweb-like swirls and scratches

Before scrubbing the car, remove as much mud or dirt with a water hose or high-pressure car wash hose.

Two-Bucket Wash Method

Separating the dirty rinse water and clean soapy water into two buckets can keep contaminants from going right back onto the paint. Using just one bucket means that all of the dirt and grime taken off the exterior with a wash mitt dumps into the wash bucket, where the mitt can then pick it up again. "The idea of two buckets is that one is your wash solution and the second is plain water. Start washing at the top of the car and work your way down, rinsing the mitt by going into to plain water bucket first to dislodge debris. Dirt going back to [the] car is a big contributor to scratches and swirls over time. You might not see it immediately, but long term, absolutely," Pennington said.

Experts warn to avoid using dishwasher detergent for car-wash soap. Dish soap is a degreaser and cleaner, so it strips wax or sealant protection away from the clear coat. Instead, use a car-wash solution to keep lubricity over the paint while washing, which will help minimize friction and the potential of scratching.

Grit Guard bucket insert

A Grit Guard insert, recommended by Phillips, is also something to consider for wash buckets. The vane-type plastic tray sits at the bottom of the water bucket and serves to scrub off dirt from the wash mitt; dirt and debris fall to the bottom of the bucket where the vanes' design traps them.

Use High-Quality Wash and Dry Products

Minimizing the harshness of anything that touches the paint in the wash and dry process is key, considering even the lightest hairline scratch appears on a black exterior.

"For a black car, you really want to use the softest materials you can find. You want to use something high quality and gentle to the paint. A high-quality microfiber towel will absorb seven times its weight in water without scratching the paint," Phillips said.

A microfiber chenille wash mitt is soft, washable and will outlast cheaper-quality ones that fall apart after a few washes. A good practice is to have two wash mitts, one for body work and another for wheels.

Microfiber chenille wash mitt

Drying a black car incorrectly can be dangerous territory too, so use the right products.
"If you are going to use a towel, use a proper scratch-free microfiber drying towel, often in the form of a waffle-weave microfiber drying tower. These are nice because they have less friction points and wick away water," said Jim Dvorak, product specialist at Mothers Polish.

Technique is important, too. Lay the microfiber towel over a spot and pat it so you're not dragging the towel across the surface. This blotting technique prevents the towel from dragging across the paint and reduces potential scratches. It's a technique Phillips uses for black cars.

Waffle-weave microfiber drying tower

Not everyone has the time or obsessive-compulsive nature for the blotting method, so experts suggest moving the microfiber slowly when drying, if not using the blotting method.

"Other ways to dry that can work exceptionally well include using a leaf blower, Dvorak said. "It's especially useful if you have a lot of body panels or grilles that are intricate and leave spots where water can rest. Side-view mirrors tend to hold water in them and will drop down the side of a car, and a leaf blower takes care of this."

An air compressor with the proper attachment also can be used to dry a car's exterior without any physical contact.

Apply Wax

Car wax is like sunscreen for your car's paint. It protects against the sun's harsh rays while also helping the exterior shed water and stay shiny. After all, that deep, mirrorlike shine is what makes owning a black car so rewarding. Apply wax as soon as possible to protect the paint, but also check the owner's manual for its recommendations.

"Find a quality brand wax you like, apply as soon as new and reapply two to three times a year," Phillips said. "Put it on your regular maintenance plan, including once before winter and once before summer."

Waxing is one area where products designed specifically for black paint are available. The shine on these styles is formulated to create a deeper, darker reflection, like looking into a puddle of engine oil. Some also have a light polishing effect to remove light scratches.

"Modern synthetic waxes provide a wet look to make a black paint look better. Many use mild polishes to brighten finishes and remove mild defects. And the nice benefit with modern synthetics is that they're easier to use [than carnauba waxes]. You don't have to labor over waxing a car," Dvorak said.

Formulated wax for black paint

Avoid Brushed Automatic Car Washes

The ultimate goal is to keep dirt from being scrubbed into the paint and creating scratches; it's a crapshoot whether those spinning brushes of doom at an automatic car wash are clean or filled with mud from the off-road truck that went through before your car.

Even hand-wash car washes are suspect because you don't know how clean their washing and drying towels are or how they've been used. Touchless car washes are the best bet for a quick wash, though not completely safe because the harsh wash chemicals can strip wax, Dvorak said.

This may not be what you want to hear, but the most dependable way to prevent scratches and swirls on a brand-new black car is to do it yourself using the tips outlined by car-care experts above.

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Managing Editor Joe Bruzek covers Cars.com’s short-and long-term fleet of test cars and drives a 1998 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am.  Email Joe

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