You might have the impression that car and truck covers are frilly accessories, best left to gearheads and car obsessives. After all, they’re not entirely common. And hey, you’re just driving a normal commuter vehicle - not some souped-up speciality car. Is an extra layer of protection for your car’s exterior really necessary?

Actually, yes! There are many good reasons for every driver to invest in a car cover. But here’s the short story: Using a car cover can help you save significant cash, lower your maintenance costs, and maybe even extend the vehicle’s lifespan.

Of course, it’s important to do your research before you buy a car cover. We’ll share some of the best ways to do that. But first, let’s review the basics.

Why bother using a car cover?

Your car’s exterior is like your skin: It’s the vehicle’s first line of defense against a hostile outside world. Most modern cars are made with galvanized steel, covered by a tough, weather-resistant paint job, topped with a scratch-resistant clear coat. The purpose of all these materials is to protect your car from its number-one enemy: rust.

Rust is a chemical process, resulting from the oxidation of metals. Initially, it causes unsightly corrosion in your chassis. But left long enough, it can eat away enough metal to cause serious structural problems. Rust can start from a superficial nick or scratch - and once it gets going, it’s hard to stop. That’s why it’s so crucial to keep your car’s “skin” healthy.

But rust is only one of the dangers your car faces. Salt spray from the ocean air or from road-treatment salt can also corrode your paint job. The sun’s UV rays can cause fading and cracking. Bird and insect droppings, tree seeds and sap, wind-borne dust and road grit, persistent rain, and the occasional hailstorm are also major threats to your vehicle’s exterior. The scratches, dings, and dents that cars accumulate over time - even when they don’t lead to rust - can become a real pain in the wallet.

How car covers pay for themselves

Simply put, damage to your car’s exterior hurts its resale value - that all-important number which can make or break your investment in a vehicle. It’s a type of depreciation.

Many drivers forget that resale value isn’t just a rational assessment of your car’s performance and mileage. It’s also heavily influenced by cosmetic factors. Buyers just won’t pay as much if your paint job looks worn. It’s a simple aesthetic judgment. They’re also betting (rightly or wrongly) that if you didn’t protect your car’s exterior, you probably didn’t maintain its engine very well either.

Just as significantly, damage to your car’s exterior, and the attendant repairs, can drive up your insurance premiums over time. And of course, there’s the price of doing the repair work itself. All of these costs add up over time. That’s why a simple $50 car cover can pay for itself many times over.

A final, often-overlooked bonus of car covers is that they protect you from theft. They obscure your car’s potentially-valuable contents while making it one step harder for would-be thieves to access the vehicle. Needless to say, if a cover keeps your car from getting stolen, that saves you a lot of money.

Car covers: Why quality matters

While the basic function of a car cover is simple - protect a vehicle from the elements - it’s important to invest in a high-quality product. That’s because, to put it simply, a low-quality cover can actually damage your car. This can happen in three ways:

  1. The inside of a cheaply-made car cover may be slightly abrasive. Sliding it on and off of your car hundreds of times could be like slowly sanding the paint job. It’s bad news.
  2. A poorly-fitted car cover can leave parts of your exterior exposed. In other words, it fails to cover the car. (And that’s its one job. It’s right in the name!)
  3. A shoddy car cover might not be adequately breathable. That means moisture and condensation can get trapped beneath the cover against the car’s surface, corroding the paint.

In other words, you can’t just throw a tarp over your vehicle. It’s worth investing in a high quality product with good consumer reviews. We’ll come back to that shortly.

Choosing a car cover: Four options to consider

When you’re in the market for a car cover, you’ll have many different options to sort through. It can be a bit overwhelming, but it the main question is this: What are you most trying to protect your car from?

If your main concern is heavy rain, road salt, snow, or hail, you need something heavy-duty. These are often called all-weather car covers and they’re the most hardcore option available. They’re generally thick, tough, and completely waterproof.

If, on the other hand, you’re trying to protect your car from intense sunlight (like in the southwestern US), moderate rain, tree sap, or bird and bug droppings, you can opt for a standard outdoor car cover. These are a notch down on the toughness index, but they’re still very capable products. Like all-weather car covers, they’re often 100% UV-proof.

Even if you park inside a garage, you may be concerned about dust, detritus, scratches from nearby cars/pedestrians, and theft (i.e. in a parking garage). In this case, you probably want an indoor car cover. These are the lightest option of the bunch, and they’re the easiest to handle.

Finally, you have the option to buy a custom-fit cover. All of the above options are universal covers; they’re made to fit any truck, car, or SUV within a certain size range. A custom car cover, on the other hand, is built for your car’s exact make and model. For instance, if you own a Ford Mustang, you can get a cover specifically for Ford Mustangs. Custom covers offer different levels of protection levels against the elements, but the advantage to all of them is that they fit your car like a glove.

Car cover reviews & reports you should read

As with any consumer product, it’s essential to do some research before you make a purchase. Here are some of the best resources for doing just that.

First, obviously, you should choose a car cover with a high star-rating from real consumers. Good sources for this type of data include CarCovers.com, along with big retailers like Amazon and Walmart. You should also review best practices from Consumer Reports.

Second, you should check out the top-performer lists put out by various car accessory enthusiasts, such as MyCarNeedsThis, AutoAccessoriesGarage, and CarBibles. Just make sure they were published recently - no more than a year or two ago.

Finally, if you really want to dig and have plenty of time, you can see what people are saying in forums like AutoGeekOnline and CarTalkCommunity.