Drive Smart: Spiff Up Your Car’s Appearance on the Cheap

Car dealers’ secrets to making a car look brand-new

Q: Besides getting a good detailing, how can I improve my car’s looks without spending a fortune?

A good detail job can make the paint shine. But it can’t hide the dents, chips, and scrapes most road warriors acquire over time. Car dealers employ a number of relatively inexpensive refurbishing techniques—and you can, too.

Paintless Dent Repair (PDR). You know the usual body-shop-repair drill: Pound out the dent, slather on filler (such as Bondo), sand, mask, and paint. But a skilled PDR technician may be able to remove a dent without doing any of this.

By removing, say, an interior door panel or a taillight, the tech can often reach behind the dented panel and, using special metal rods and picks similar to oversized dental tools, gently massage the dent from the back of the body panel until it eventually disappears—without disturbing the factory paint.

But if that’s impossible, the tech may use a “glue puller” to remove the dent from the outside, again without damaging the paint.

The benefits of PDR? Nobody will be able to tell that the car was ever damaged, as they might if they spot mismatched paint or overspray, or if they search for body filler with a magnet (which won’t stick to filler). PDR saves money; it typically costs one-quarter to one-third as much as traditional body repair. A small, inch-long dent may cost less than $100 to fix, although surprisingly large dents can be repaired with PDR as well. PDR won’t work on sharply creased dents or if the paint is badly scraped.

Bumper Repair. Automakers have used plastic-capped bumpers that are annoyingly easy to damage during mishaps in the parking lot.

Instead of replacing the bumper, a bumper-repair specialist may recondition it for much less than the cost of a new bumper. Using a technique called “nitrogen plastic welding,” a specialist may even be able to fix a bumper that is cut or torn.

Wheel Repair. Alloy wheels are especially vulnerable to unsightly abrasions from rubbing against a curb when parallel parking. “Curbed” alloy wheels are relatively expensive to replace but quite inexpensive for a wheel specialist to recondition.

Glass Repair. A cracked windshield is both unsightly and a safety hazard. Front-seat air bags use the windshield as a backboard; if the integrity of the glass is compromised, the air bag might not deploy correctly. Replacing a windshield typically costs a few hundred dollars, but it may run more on cars with features like rain-sensing wipers.

Cracks of an inch or so can be repaired for less than $100. The repair prevents the crack from enlarging, but it doesn’t make it disappear entirely, so cracks directly in the driver’s line of vision aren’t candidates for repair—nor are lengthy cracks. Unfortunately, sand pits can’t be buffed or polished out of windshield glass.

Dull, yellowed, or pitted plastic headlight lenses can be restored by a professional, but do-it-yourself headlight restoration kits also are available at auto parts stores.

It’s important to find qualified, experienced specialists for these jobs—especially when it comes to PDR, which is more of an art than a science. Ask to see a business license and proof of insurance.

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