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Of all the miracle car-care products out there, ceramic paint coatings seem to get maximum hype: Never clean your car, never worry about paint chips, shine those scratches right out. The hype might not be precisely true, but it hints at the practical basis of the concept.
Long before $3000 ceramic packages made their way to your local detailer’s price board, car-care companies in Asia were trying to solve a thorny problem: Carnauba wax and synthetic sealants couldn’t hold up to the region’s acid rain. Mike Stoops, senior global product and training specialist at car care product maker Meguiar’s, explains that a ceramic coating uses the same building blocks as glass—silicon dioxide—to form a thicker, stronger protective layer between your car’s paint and the outside world. The silicon barrier is far harder than any wax, a claim often touted by people selling ceramic products. And since the silicon dioxide binds to the microscopically porous surface of a car’s paint, it’ll hold on for years if properly cared for.
“I know a lot of guys who were quite resistant to offering these coatings,” Stoops told Road & Track. “They were getting pulled into this whole notion of these things having three, four, five years of durability. Their initial response was, ‘Why would I want to put something on a car that means my customer does not have to come back to me?’ So they didn’t want to offer it.”
That worked five or six years ago, but as more customers heard about ceramic coatings online, more people asked detailers about them. Ceramics started booming, often driven by marketing that wasn’t quite realistic. The hardness of the coating, for instance, suggests that it can’t be scratched by anything but the hardest materials. That’s technically true, but the coating applied to a car’s paint is too thin to confer any kind of superhero scratch resistance.
Ceramic’s resistance to exfoliation, too, has been blown out of proportion. The bond between a ceramic coating and your paint is strong enough to stand up to towels and light abrasions—far better than conventional wax—but if you run your coated car through a dirty-brush automatic car wash, you’re rinsing $3000 down the drain. As Stoops put it, a ceramic coating isn’t a Star Trek shield that can repel all damage. It’s a sacrificial barrier that will give itself up to protect your paint.
It’s also not a healing product like a polishing compound. While promotional images show immaculate ceramic-coated cars with swirl-free paint and zero imperfections, a ceramic coating alone won’t get your daily driver any closer to that ideal. Coat an imperfect car and you’ll simply lock those imperfections beneath a slick, protective layer. If you want glass-smooth paint, you’ll probably need to do some polishing before you apply that ceramic layer.
Think of ceramic as an ultra-wax. While synthetic sealants represent a huge step forward from naturally-derived carnauba waxes, ceramics are an even bigger leap. They’re more durable, stronger, and stunningly hydrophobic. On a perfectly waxed car, water will form beads, but Stoops says some ceramics are so water-repellant that you’ll see water droplets tucking up under themselves, forming little ball bearings that roll right off the car. Those droplets tend to trap dirt and oils as they roll away, meaning that a ceramic-coated car will quite literally get a wash every time it rains. And when you do take the time to wash a ceramic-coated car with soap and water, grime and debris come off a lot easier.
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None of this comes quite as cheaply as wax, but prices have come down in the past few years. What used to require a professional application and a four-figure bill can now be done by a hobbyist at home. Our former contributor Jason Cammisa did just that. After a thorough hand wash, some light claying, and a buff, he was able to apply two coats of CarPro’s CQuartz to his VW e-Golf in about four hours. Around 2000 miles later, Cammisa says the car basically stays clean naturally. He’ll hose it down every once in a while, but nothing really sticks to it.
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