Aside from a house, cars are likely the most expensive object most people own. And of course there’s no fixed cost. Once you’ve driven off the lot, you need to worry about insurance, payments, gas, and maintenance. With that responsibility, many of us like to take care of our cars the best way we know how. That might mean a regular wash and wax, a specific kind of fuel, or a rigorous maintenance schedule. Or it could mean adding flourishes to personalize our cars.
This is nothing new. The automotive aftermarket is a multibillion-dollar industry. And if there’s money to be made, there are people out there running scams. From fuel additives to decor, there’s an incredible amount of junk out there. And unfortunately, plenty of people are happy to buy it without asking questions.
Some products are decent but often misused. Others are useless crap. And a small amount can actually damage your car and end up costing you more money in the end. We’ve taken a sample of all three. Here are 10 things for your car that are a complete waste of money.
1. Fake vents
Some performance cars, such as the Corvette Z06, have functional cooling vents on virtually every body panel. These send much-needed cool air to the engine and brakes, which are designed to handle extreme conditions for hours at a time. Your used 13-year-old Lincoln Aviator has no need for extra cooling, so its design team didn’t give it any in the first place.
Still, that hasn’t dissuaded millions of Americans from plunking down $10 or more on crappy stick-on faux vents. They make your car look ridiculous, wreak havoc on its paint, and show the world you’ve been taken for a few of your hard-earned bucks.
Next: For the most part, you can skip this aisle altogether.
2. Most fuel treatments
Walk into any parts store, and you’ll likely find a whole aisle of fuel additives, boasting increased mileage or near-magic restorative powers. Although very few of them are actually bad for your car, not many can deliver as promised either.
There are a few standouts — Chevron and Lucas Oil both offer some quality products to clean fuel injectors — but for the most part, you can skip this aisle altogether. And if you’re a regular at your local instant oil change, don’t throw your money away on this stuff, no matter how hard they try to sell it.
3. Fuel economy boosters
In 2013, a product called Fuelshark burst onto the “As Seen on TV” scene. For just $39.95, it promised to increase your fuel economy by at least 10%, and all you needed to do was plug it into your car’s cigarette lighter. This was, of course, a lie. The company claimed by plugging in its gadget, it “stabilizes your car’s electrical system,” taking strain off your engine and improving mileage.
Despite being thoroughly debunked, the Fuelshark and similar products are still on the market. These gizmos are the automotive equivalent of the internet’s “one weird trick” scams. Don’t be fooled.
4. ‘Free’ inspections
Chances are your local car-care chain offers some sort of “free” inspections. So how can a “free” inspection cost you anything? They’re designed to set you up for a big-ticket purchase.
A “free alignment inspection” could mean expensive new shocks, struts, or suspension components. A “free brake inspection” will likely lead to a hard sell on new pads and rotors. And a “free tire inspection” could lead trusting customers to buying a new set of tires they might not really need.
Simply put, these are programs designed to get people to spend money. If you think you need something, such as new brakes, but aren’t sure, then by all means take advantage of these offers. But don’t let yourself be talked into opening your wallet when you don’t need to.
5. Light bars
Off-road-ready trucks, such as the Jeep Wrangler and Ford Raptor, have exploded in popularity. Of course, very few of these trucks actually go off road, but that hasn’t stopped dealers and buyers from outfitting them with giant tires, bull bars, and extremely powerful light bars.
For a few hundred bucks, you can buy a 100,000-lumen light bar, which can be seen from miles away. Although they might look cool, they’re extremely dangerous for oncoming traffic and might be illegal depending on your state. So before you drop the cash to make your urban 4×4 look tough, check your local laws. Otherwise, you’ll be out a couple hundred — plus legal fees.
6. Aluminum tire caps
Another auto store favorite, aluminum tire caps are a cheap (usually around $5) way to dress up your wheels. Available in a range of colors and styles — and even with your car’s brand on them — there are dozens to choose from.
But there’s a reason why manufacturers use plastic caps on your valve stems: The stems are made of brass. When exposed to humidity, the aluminum and brass oxidize, fusing the caps onto the tires. This could make for a rude (and possibly expensive) awakening the next time you need to put air in your tires.
High-performance cars have teams of engineers working on complex aerodynamic solutions to keep the car planted to the ground at speed. That includes air dams, special ducting, and spoilers. On cars like the Dodge Viper, spoilers play an integral part in how it handles at speed. But buying an aftermarket spoiler and drilling it into your trunk lid probably won’t have any effect on your car — unless it gets ripped off in the car wash. So don’t waste your money.
8. Cone air filters
Have you ever been stuck in traffic, wondering what those orange and white K&N stickers are on the cars in front of you? K&N manufactures air filters, intakes, and oil filters. K&N builds some of the best filters and intakes out there. They’re built to last a million miles, only need washing every 50,000 miles, and allow for a marginal boost in horsepower.
But plenty of people read “horsepower boost” and think bolting on a $300 cold air intake will turn their Chevy Cobalt into a Porsche. If you’re planning to keep your car for the long haul, don’t want to worry about filters, and might make some performance modifications down the line, we recommend K&N’s products. But if you think you’re going to see serious performance gains from an air intake alone, think again.
9. Exterior wraps
Over the past decade or so, exterior vinyl wraps have taken off in a big way. When done right, they look great. They can give your car a whole new lease on life and cost far less than a fresh coat of paint.
But there is a big downside: They can destroy the paint underneath should you ever decide to go back to a stock look. Heat and sunlight melt the glue, which can fuse parts of the wrap to your car’s paint. In 2013, Road & Track wrapped a vintage Volkswagen Cabriolet in vinyl, and the results were stunning. Three years later, the wrap cleanly came off the car’s metal panels, but the adhesive ruined the clear coat and paint on plastic pieces.
So if you’re thinking about wrapping a car for cost reasons instead of painting it, just remember you’ll eventually be paying a body shop for a fresh coat of paint if you change your mind.
10. Window tint
A number of crossovers, SUVs, minivans, and trucks come from the factory with dark window tints. But if you’re willing to spend up to $500 at a shop for dark windows, you might want to think again. Laws vary from state to state, but for the most part windshields and the front side windows need to stay relatively clear. Like light bars, if you drop all that money on this modification without doing your research, you might be stuck with legal fees on top of paying to undo that tint.