If you drive an older car, especially one that didn’t exactly cost six figures to begin with, the chances are good that you don’t want to spend a lot of money on the vehicle. But it’s also a safe bet that you would prefer not to drive around town in a car that makes the Flintstone Mobile look like a Rolls Royce. If you want to update your old beater without investing much cash, you have to use the clever approach. (See what I did there? Yeah, you see it.)
The fact is that you will never make a ’98 Hyundai look like a ’17 Mercedes. You can, however, make any car look better with even a modest outlay of cash and a little bit of elbow grease. You just have to know which aspects of the vehicle to target. The secret to owning a car that looks more expensive/cooler/unique (and less worn down) is usually by making subtle updates rather than going for gusto — in other words, you might want to pass on the four-foot-tall tail fin and the underbody glow kit… unless that’s your thing. Some people like the Car of the Future look, after all.
Just remember this: cheap updates that make your car look cooler and more expensive are not necessarily about attracting maximum attention; in fact, often such updates are more about distracting attention from a problem.
15. WINDOW TINT
If your vehicle has older windows that are faded, chipped, or even cracked in a few places, you might not have to replace the glass to get windows that look better and are in fact safer. Just coat them with vehicle window tint. Window film can make your car look sleek and modern, and it can conceal the blemishes on those worn out panes of glass. The other major benefits of window film are a cooler interior that requires less use of air conditioning, and also the fact that window tint hides the inside of your car, which might also look worn out.
14. NEW STEERING WHEEL
You touch your car’s steering wheel more than any other part of the vehicle. (At least that should be true provided you are driving your car properly.) That tends to wear down a wheel much more quickly than other parts of the vehicle. Replacing your old steering wheel with a new unit can make the whole interior of the car look better, and that’s true whether you choose a slick, futuristic wheel with a funky shape and cool colors or if you install a classy faux-wooden option. Either way, you can probably do it for less than $100.
13. SPORT PEDALS
Most people will not see the pedals of your car unless they are borrowing (or stealing) the vehicle, or if they are a mechanic, or someone whose just really into cars. But anyone who does take the time to notice the pedals will be duly impressed with your ride if you have a set of shiny metal sport pedals down there under foot. And there is no reason the impressed party has to know that, in most cases, a set of sport pedals costs between $25 and $45 at most, with many options even available for well under twenty bucks.
12. GEARSHIFT KNOB REPLACEMENT
If you drive a car with an automatic transmission, you probably want to move along to another idea for improving your ride. But if you drive a manual, than swapping out the base model gearshift for a custom knob is a great way to make your car look more expensive and more personalized. And also you can swap out a shift knob for a laughably low price. This is a chance to make your car reflect your passion, so don’t be afraid of installing a shift knob that looks like a golf club or a pool ball, or go for a sleek steel sphere, a wooden option, or a black leather-wrapped unit.
11. NEW TIRE LOOK THROUGH RESTORATION
If your car’s tires are old and worn out, you need to replace them. It’s a safety thing, so just do it. If they simply look worn out but still work well enough, consider using a tire-restoring product like Forever Black Tire Gel Dye. Yes, this is a product that essentially paints your tires to make them look new again. Which is a bit ridiculous. But it also blocks UV light from further damaging the rubber and creates a thin barrier against damage from debris and dust, so it protects the tires while providing said window dressing.
10. THE SOUND SYSTEM
You can install a new radio/MP3 player/Bluetooth ready system in your car without updating the actual wiring (or the speakers) for much less cash than you would expect, and if you know how to carefully follow instructions, installation of most such systems is an entirely DIY project. Or you can order a new media receiver system and have the guys at the auto body shop install it for a few bucks. Either way, if your car is too old to deserve a brand new stereo system, you can still enjoy an improved audio experience just by updating the receiver.
9. VINYL WRAP
In most cases, a brand new paint job for a car will cost a few thousand dollars. Even for a smaller car and in standard colors like white or black, total paint jobs are pricey. But having your entire car wrapped in vinyl is not all that expensive, and the effect can look every bit as good as brand new paint from a distance. A great vinyl wrapping will even look good under close scrutiny, and you can have the car adorned with a wrap in almost any color. Or you can go nuts and have a pattern, logos, or graphics plastered all over your ride, too.
8. HEADLIGHT BULB UPDATE
This is another update that can make your car look better and be safer at the same time. Replacing an old (or broken) headlight bulb will allow you to better illuminate the roadway in front of your car, to more easily be seen by other motorists, and it will add some cool factor to the vehicle as well. You can choose a halogen bulb with a pale blue hue or an LED headlight bulb with a stark white color temperature. Or consider xenon bulbs. Or something else; most new headlight bulbs are generally affordable and usually easy to install.
7. CUSTOM SEAT COVERS
Few things make a car look sadder than old, torn, cracked, and/or faded upholstery on the front seats. If your car looks like Freddy Krueger and Edward Scissorhands took turns trying to wipe down the upholstery, then it’s time for action. You could have the car seats reupholstered, but that’s expensive and time consuming. So instead just get a pair of matching seat covers and slide them over those worn out chairs. You can choose everything from big fuzzy covers that will keep you warm in the winter to sleek two-tone covers that approximate the look of the interior of a race car.
6. TAIL LIGHT FILM
If your vehicle is beset by broken taillight or turn signal covers, then it probably looks… how do I put this…terrible. Likewise, if the plastic casing over the lights on the back of your car is intact but worn and faded, then it’s time for an upgrade. Applying taillight tint to your car’s lights can give the automobile a sleek, modern look during the daytime without markedly impacting how well the lights can be seen during the day or at night when they are illuminated. This specialty film is especially good looking on darker cars, as it creates a uniform look.
5. A TOUCH OF CHROME
You don’t need brand new 22-inch chrome wheels with spinning dubs to make your car look awesome. And in fact, don’t do that. Don’t spend all your money on spinning rims; buy some land instead. But do spend a few bucks on minor chrome accent pieces, such as a chrome plate that can adorn part (or all) of your side view mirrors, or that can frame your headlights. Chrome accent kits can also update the interior of your car, and just so you know, usually the “chrome” in question is actually shiny ABS plastic. AKA very cheap, but who cares if no one knows?
4. CLEAN THE HEADLIGHTS
It’s amazing how much better your car will look after you simply clean the headlights. That means cleaning the plastic headlight coverings, really, as the bulbs themselves are best left untouched. You can try the toothpaste headlight cleaning hack, but it usually won’t work well on truly dirty, grimy headlights. Instead order a kit specifically made to clean auto lighting, or else bite the bullet and get it done professionally. It will make your car look better by day, and it will improve visibility at night, letting you see more and be seen more easily by others on the road.
3. GROUND EFFECTS
Technically speaking, ground effects are those features applied to the undercarriage of a vehicle with the intention of creating a downward force through directed wind pressure. These components help prevent a race car from lifting off the roadway at high speeds and offer ideal control to the driver under all conditions. But in practice, these are usually aftermarket mods intended to make a car look sporty and cool. Applied with restraint (i.e. matching colors, as a bare minimum), ground effects can make your car look sleek and unique without necessarily making you look like a drag racer from the late 1990s.
2. HEADS UP GPS
Which accessory can make you feel like a fighter pilot and reduce the chance that you cause a car crash while trying to find your friend’s house? A Heads-Up GPS Display unit, of course! These nifty devices have only been on the market for a few years, but are likely to be standard in many cars within a few more years. There are a few different options on the market, but all offer the same basic functionality, which is a clear screen (some use a projection on the windshield itself) you can see through that has all the needed data, such as navigation information, right before your eyes.
1. DELOREAN BACK TO THE FUTURE KIT
OK, so the DeLorean Back to the Future update kit is not actually all that cheap in the scheme of things. In fact, the kit will cost your around $30,000 if you buy it outright (there’s always the do-it-yourself angle), which is in fact more than you might pay for a used DeLorean in a decent condition anyway. But you can’t in good conscience drive a DeLorean that’s not kitted out to travel through time, so think of the extra expenditure not as an update to your car, but as the completion of the vehicle. And perhaps the completion of yourself, too.