Wrapping a vehicle in vinyl to alter its look was once the domain of show cars, luxury and exotics but has now gone mainstream as part of a growing multibillion-dollar industry.
A car wrap is a series of vinyl decals that allows an owner to change the look of a vehicle without the long-term commitment of a traditional paint job. Think of it as a temporary tattoo for your car.
Wrapping differs from a paint job in that the decals can be removed later with no impact on the existing paint, assuming the wrap was maintained correctly.
The designs include standard glossy colors, gradient colors, matte finishes, chrome metallic colors, company logos and full-on illustrations. The only limits are your imagination – and your budget.
The Edmunds experts have gone through this process with a vehicle and discuss the pros and cons of getting your car wrapped.
Pristine surface needed
Some people might think that a wrap can be used to breathe life into an older car or one with a bad paint job, but that isn’t the case. Sure, it’ll cover up the unsightly paint, but if the vehicle has any scratches, paint imperfections or door dings, they will be quite noticeable on the newly wrapped surface.
Additionally, if the paint has started to flake or oxidize, the decals will have a hard time adhering. Many shops will advise customers to repair any scratches or dents before wrapping the vehicle.
Costs can vary
The act of applying an auto wrap is fairly labor-intensive, so the shop will determine the price based on the size of the vehicle, the complexity of the installation, and the materials of the wrap itself.
The cost can range from $2,000 for a smaller vehicle with a common color, such as matte black, to $10,000 on a high-end vehicle like a Bentley or Lamborghini. The vinyl shop needs to be extra careful with those vehicles, and the body panels tend to be more complicated to remove.
Chrome or metallic finishes fall somewhere in between and tend to be on the more expensive side due to the higher cost of the materials and the intricacies involved in the installation. Chrome wraps can turn dull when they’re overheated or overstretched. Expect to pay roughly $6,500 to $8,000 for a chrome wrap.
First, the shop will wash and detail the vehicle with a clay bar to remove any contaminants from the surface of the paint. Some installers use a solution of isopropyl alcohol to clean the paint and then use compressed air to blow off any remaining dirt particles.
Next, the shop will remove the bumper covers, headlights and taillights so that the installer can place the wrap as close to the edges of the body panels as possible. If a customer doesn’t feel comfortable with the shop taking the car apart, the installer will skip that step and use a scalpel-like tool to cut the vinyl around lights and grilles.
The installer will then apply the vinyl to the vehicle body. A heat gun is often used to make the decal more pliable, so it can properly adhere to the shape of the vehicle. Complex wrap designs will require additional vinyl layers. Finally, the installer will use a soft felt squeegee to remove any lingering air pockets.
The entire process can take a few days to complete. If you want the doorjambs – the inner body-colored part of your doors – to match, it can easily take an extra day or so since the area has numerous crevices. Often the doors need to be taken apart before being wrapped, which can add to the labor required and cost.
How long do they last?
A properly maintained car wrap can last up to five years. However, the more a car wrap is exposed to the elements, the shorter it will survive. Excessive sun exposure can dry out the vinyl wrap, making it difficult to remove and significantly shortening its life span.
Some shops will offer to apply a nano-ceramic coating on the finished wrap – for an added fee – to give it greater UV resistance and prevent minor scratches.
Avoid parking your wrapped vehicle in the street and exposing it to road salts and extreme temperatures. Similarly, you’ll want to steer clear of automatic car washes, and instead use a microfiber towel to keep the wrap clean.
When the time comes to sell your car, or if you want to go back to the car’s original color, you can take it back to the shop to get the wrap removed. If the wrap has retained its structural integrity, removal can be as easy as pulling off a Band-Aid.
But if it’s been baked in and comes apart, expect to pay about $2,500 for the added labor.
Ronald Montoya is a senior consumer advice editor at Edmunds. Follow Ronald on Twitter