I built my own car wash menu based on offerings at the local car wash to illustrate what is typically available. But keep in mind that each facility seems to have their own nomenclature for the stuff they are offering to spray on your car. At one place I visited, you have the express wash with triple foam deal for $6. For $9 you can have your wheels cleaned. And for The Works you'd pay $12, which includes everything in the $9 deal plus a body shield product along with a 5-day guarantee. Let's look at each area in detail.
The basic wash
This basic treatment usually involves just what it says, a wash (with triple foam, may I add) and rinse. The first phase of the process pressure washes the exterior of dirt, grime, mud; salt, etc. Then, when the vehicle goes into the spray and wash tunnel, a ph neutral washing solution is sprayed onto the vehicle exterior that promises not to etch into the clear coat finish of the vehicle. Next, the whole car is wiped down with either non-abrasive brushes or cloth strips.
Sometimes a basic wash involves an undercarriage wash as well. This is a great idea because it will hopefully flush out the salt that has gotten into undercarriage cracks and crevices over a long winter season. Now, as far as I'm concerned, this is all I need at a car wash. When I am offered more than this, I decline for the following reasons:
Usually, when one goes to the car wash, the place offers a step up from the basic wash that includes wheel cleaning. Car wheels get dirty as a result of super-heated semi-metallic brake dust that comes off the brake pads as they squeeze the brake rotors. This metallic dust impregnates the wheel's clear-coat finish, permanently staining the wheel. No exterior car wash/water-solution will clean it.
There is a product on the market called Wheel Shield that repels 60% of all brake dust and offers protection from corrosive road-clearing chemicals like liquid sodium, magnesium chloride and rock salt. But to clean the wheel after it's been contaminated with this nasty stuff? Nope. The only way to restore the finish to original condition is to have the wheel sand blasted, painted and clear coated again. Then, you can apply Wheel Shield on a regular basis.
This kind of trouble and expense is usually reserved for luxury cars, and not a Ford Focus and Toyota Corolla. The other option for some added protection and cosmetic good looks is Armor All. But again, this has to be worked onto the tire by hand.
In addition to wheel cleaning, consumers are also often offered clearcoat protector. Clearcoat protection products protect the clear & base color coat from the UV rays of the sun, moisture and oxidation; these are all elements that fade the paint. A sealer applied by rubbing it on the vehicle's finish will always give you better protection than a product that's sprayed on at a car wash.
Car wash waxes give a nice temporary shine, but don't provide much ongoing protection. How could they, given their price point? A typical professional paint sealant application costs anywhere from $100 - $200 because it's labor-intensive application must be added to the cost of the actual product. Compare this with the $2 or $3 at the car wash.
If you want this treatment, either pay the price at a detailing shop or buy the product and apply some elbow grease yourself on a clear, bright Saturday morning; or, make it the afternoon, and put the ballgame on the radio.
Rust protection is controversial, because so many companies have fallen by the wayside from fraud over the years. Presently, I know of only two companies that offer genuine rust protection, and they do not offer their services through the car wash network of the US.
In order for rust protection to be effective, someone has to open up body panels, door panels, get under the hood and into trunk areas, and finally inside the boxed areas of the vehicle frame or unibody construction. True rust protection costs on average $100 - $250 per vehicle, depending on whether it's a car, truck or SUV.
The extra few dollars the car wash wants is for spraying a solution on the vehicle's exterior that washes off in short order and, given its lack of durability, doesn't accomplish anything. I'd save my money for a fancy cup of coffee.
Finally... car wash heaven?
Finally, the ultimate in car wash menus: the 5-day guarantee! What? A 5-day guarantee? Guarantee of what? That you'll need all these services again in five days? That's usually what such a guarantee means. This alone is evidence that all you got was a $6 wash two times with a few extra chemicals thrown in to make you feel better.
The bottom line
By all means, get a weekly basic wash and help a local business. I'd even recommend buying the coupon book that can save you money as you go back again and again. But I should also say that I know a few people who lovingly wash their own cars, and wouldn't set foot or tire near an automatic car wash. And they believe all those tender hand washes best preserves the paint in their "baby" over the years. And if you want a comprehensive guide on do-it-yourself detailing, Autoblog supplies an entire video series of instruction.
However, we don't all have that amount of time, or interest. As for these extras offered by the neighborhood car wash? Skip them, and put the money in the piggy bank. Do, however, spend the appropriate amount of money to have a few of these things, like wheel cleaning, clearcoat protection and rust-proofing (if so inclined) done at a proper detailing or body shop using the proper products and application methods.