Short of keeping your car wrapped in a protective sphere like Seinfeld's Bubble Boy, there is no way to keep it from getting scratched. Having decided to repair your car's finish, however, you'll find that auto care products rival diet aids in their profusion and enthusiastic claims. The reason could be that, as with dieters, no two scratches are the same.
So what really is the best and most cost effective way to return your car to showroom glory?
Common Repair Prices For Scratches and Scrapes
|Light scratches, self repair||$25-$75|
|Light to medium scratches, auto body shop||As low as $50, as high as a few hundred dollars|
|Deep scratches requiring repainting body panel||$500 and up|
The first thing to know is that eliminating scratches involves two things: the paint and the clearcoat layer atop the paint.
While clearcoats keep cars looking better longer, "The bad thing is that clearcoats magnify scratches," Barry Meguiar said. Meguiar is the man behind the Meguiar's brand of car care products. "A fine scratch on a clearcoat finish will be about seven times more noticeable than on a conventional paint finish."
Whether you're dealing with a blemish by the door handle or a panel full of swirl marks, it really comes down to two simple fixes.
"There are two ways to take them out," he said. "One is to hide them, one is to remove them. You can polish over them and fill in the scratch -- the problem with that is the first wash wipes the polish out of the grooves."
If you opt for removal, the only way to do it is to lower the level of the paint surrounding the scratch to the depth of the bottom of the scratch, until the area is flat and smooth.
The three easy removal options you can do at home begin with something like Meguiar's Scratch X, a non-abrasive liquid good for minor scratches you might find around door handles. For more serious marks, a gel like Swirl X removes the circular marks, spider-webs and holograms.
Finally, scoring that has broken the clearcoat and disturbed the paint will probably need a rubbing compound which can be applied by hand or with a dual-action polisher. This option requires care -- rubbing compounds come in varying strengths, like sandpaper, and if the application is too vigorous you can end up replacing a few scratches with a thousand scratches. Test the compound on a small, out of the way area before tackling the main event.
After working your magic, you can help keep scratches at bay by using 100% terrycloth cotton towels or premium microfiber towels that won't mar the finish when you wash your car.
If things are still more serious -- say you need to retouch the paint -- but you still want to do it yourself, companies like Finish Masters can whip up a batch of your car's original, factory applied color.
"Every car's paint has a number," said Finish Master's Ruben Chaidez. "I can look up that number in my system and there's a 99.9% chance I'll get the formula."
Getting the color is the easy part.
"You can come in and get the paint in ten to fifteen minutes depending on how busy we are," Chaidez said. "The smallest unit we make is a pint, and they go for $20 to $90."
It's the application that demands skill.
"If you try and touch it up by hand," he said. "It ain't gonna look the same. You have to spray it."
It is one thing to own your car and know that you can tend to its imperfections -- or not -- on your own time. It's another to have a leased vehicle and know that it needs to look nearly new in a few months when you return it, or else face a host of charges for the flaws.
Andy Graff, director of strategic planning at Galpin Ford in Van Nuys, California makes one recommendation.
"Get the car detailed before you have the car inspected," Graff said. "Detailing can often remove a host of minor scratches, and showing up with a thoroughly clean car makes a good impression on the person examining your lease return."
When looking over your lease to see if there any marks you want to take care of yourself, the "credit card rule" is a convenient one to follow. If the blemish isn't too deep and can be covered up with a credit card, there's a chance you won't be charged.
But it's only a chance.
"The credit card rule can be invoked when trying to figure out what you might be charged for, but that's not the limit," he said. "Different finance companies have different standards. Some are more stringent than others."
While some finance companies will note minor flaws, at least one finance company willingly gives lessees a $1,500 allowance for damage. In case you haven't already, check your lease contract and ask the dealer if you can see their lease-return book to get all of the details.
It could help you even more if your lease is through the manufacturer's finance company instead of a third party bank.
"There's a wear-and-tear allowance with specifications set by BMW Financial Services," BMW Santa Monica's Lorelei Llee said. "There can't be two scratches on one body panel. They send a lease-end packet to customers, and it has a little disc to help them inspect the car."
The real benefit is that the manufacturer, unlike a bank, wants to make sure it gets your business for the next car.
"BMW doesn't want to (make you mad)," Llee said. "They want you to lease another car."
Kamal Girgis, sales manager at Marina del Rey Toyota, seconded that.
"We deal with Toyota Finance, and manufacturers don't want to ding you unless it's something big," he said. "They also want to maintain loyalty to the brand."
Girgis, though, also recommended working with the dealer to "make fixing the car part of buying the next car. There are a lot of ways to work around this."
If you will be returning a lease car soon, Galpin's Andy Graff advises prudence when trying to figure out what you should and shouldn't have repaired.
"If damage is covered by insurance I would have it taken care of," he said. "With light scratches I might wait until the end. The lease company might not charge you, or if you have two scratches on the same body panel it could be easier for them to fix two things."
When you sit down to arrange your next lease, as usual, the prevention beats the cure. All three dealer leasing representatives recommended a wear-and-tear policy. It works like insurance, covering damage up to a set amount when you return the car, and the premium is lumped into the lease payment.
"The best protection out there is a wear and tear policy," Graff said. "All kinds of things that are normally chargeable would be covered."