The Practical Gift Guide for Car Lovers

Jeff S. Bartlett & Jon Linkov

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There are many gimmicky gifts available for car lovers. Sure, an air freshener, "Back Off" mudflaps, or a bumper sticker may be fun, but there are far more practical ways to treat auto enthusiasts on your shopping list. 

The Cars team at Consumer Reports has pulled together a list of suggestions to turbocharge your holiday shopping. These products are based on our trials and testing. Most can improve the driving experience and potentially make it safer. 

The prices run the gamut from stocking stuffers to major treats. Here, we present practical gifts for car lovers. 

Music Subscription

With the ability to connect a smartphone to a car stereo, drivers have more music options than ever. Newer cars can play music stored on or streamed from a phone, and some can even control cell-phone apps. 

Pandora and Spotify are integrated into many infotainment systems, providing a compelling alternative to terrestrial and satellite radio. Each app has a base-level free service that's ad-supported (meaning you'll hear an ad every so often between songs).

For $4.99 a month or $54.89 for one year, Pandora Plus removes ads from its streaming radio service, and Pandora Premium—at $9.99 a month or $109.89 for a year—allows you to search for individual songs or albums and create your own playlists.

Spotify, a similar music service, is free. The no-advertisement Premium starts at $9.99 a month. Premium Family costs $14.99 a month and lets family members in the same household enjoy up to six Premium accounts. Premium Student includes Spotify Premium, Hulu, and Showtime for $4.99 a month.

Many cars over the past decade have come with a satellite radio receiver, enabling access to more than 140 channels of entertainment with a subscription to SiriusXM.

The service offers an introductory 12-month subscription for $60, allowing the music fan on your holiday list to play country, rock, hip-hop, classical, or pop music in the car.

A premier streaming option for the same amount expands the entertainment to over 200 channels. Plans vary based on whether the listener is streaming in-car or on a computer and mobile device, or if the user wants video. Prices are $8 a month for basic, $13 a month for more channels and video, $16.99 a month for car use, and $21.99 for everything.

Learn more about car infotainment.

Phone Mount

A phone mount can be a low-cost way to add convenience and even safety to your car. CR recently evaluated 15 different cell-phone mounts, from ones that mount in air vents to those that attach to the windshield, to see if there are any that work best no matter which car they’re used in. Our car experts used each mount in their daily driving for weeks and logged their impressions of each one.  

We found that there are pros and cons to each type, but a couple that stood out as staff favorites are the windshield-mounted MPow 033 and the suction-cup dash-mounted MPow C108/096. We see the value in a model that has built-in charging capability to offset the energy demands of using phone-based navigation. 

Learn how to choose the right phone mount for you, and check out our staff picks. 

Jump-Starter Battery Pack

Micro-sized battery packs are powerful enough to jump-start a car with a failing battery. They can also be used to recharge portable devices such as mobile phones and tablets, which makes them a useful part of an emergency kit—as long as you keep them charged up and ready to go. Most weigh only a pound and are roughly the size of a paperback novel.

All the units we tested had at least one built-in USB port to handle those recharging duties, as well as a built-in flashlight. Some had connectors that allow you to charge certain laptops. These functions add a lot of versatility to the jump packs, especially if you're camping or when the power goes out at home. The 10 units we tested had an average price of about $90.

The standout in our tests was the Antigravity Batteries XP-10. It provided power to charge devices such as phones and laptops for three times as long as the poorest performers in our testing. The Antigravity device has two USB ports, several laptop connection options, and best-in-test device charging capacity.

H owever , it can cost $50 more than the other models we tested. There are strong alternatives from Bolt Power, New Brights, and Spirit that performed almost as well for much less money.

Tire-Pressure Gauge

A simple stocking-friendly tire-pressure gauge can be an important reminder to drivers that they should check the pressure monthly. A car's tires should be properly inflated to get the optimum performance, safety, and tread life. Without the proper pressure, tires can wear faster and unevenly, waste fuel, and compromise the vehicle’s handling.

There are three basic types of gauges: stick, dial, and digital. Our testing shows that you don’t need to spend much to get a good gauge. Stick gauges are the most compact, making them easy to stow in a glovebox. The Accutire MS-4021B and Accutire MS-4400B digital units are our picks for accuracy, durability, and ease of use, plus they're reasonably priced.  

See our tire-pressure gauge buying guide and ratings.

Cordless Tire Inflator

A cordless tire inflator is a great way to top off the air pressure in a tire. It eliminates the need to run a large compressor or drag around hoses at the local gas station.

They typically come with a connection to inflate car tires and, adding to their appeal, a needle adapter to inflate basketballs, footballs, and the like. Most also include a special adapter for blowing up inflatables like pool toys, and some have adapters for inflating high-pressure bicycle tires.

Many cordless tire inflators are compatible with a line of battery-powered tools, making it tempting to add the inflator as part of a  suite  rather than as a single, standalone item.

Among the several less expensive hand-held models, we like the Ryobi One+. From the group of inflators evaluated in 2017, the Ryobi had the most muscle with the fastest inflation performance. And it costs just $25, assuming you can use the battery and charger from other Ryobi tools.

However, if you're not already a Ryobi tool owner, it's a bit pricey when you add in the cost of the battery and charger. That total package costs $70 or more. 

We looked at a number of larger, more expensive models that can inflate a car tire in 4 to 7 minutes. A real advantage for these larger compressors is that most allow you to set the target psi, then walk away and let it do its job. You don’t need to remain crouched, holding the air nozzle in place.

If you’re shopping for a cordless toolkit and prize having a great inflator, choose the DeWalt 20V Max Inflator for its combination of overall good performance, simple-to-use features, quiet operation, and use of logical hose storage. Consumer Reports has found DeWalt heavy-duty cordless drills to be strong performers, as well.

Learn more about choosing a cordless tire inflator.

Headlight Restoration Kit

A headlight restoration kit can be a bright idea for a gift.

As cars age, especially those parked outside regularly, the headlight lens cover can become clouded or hazed because of exposure to the sun's UV rays. A AAA study found that over time, the clouding effect can reduce the amount of light emitted by up to 80 percent compared with what you got when the  car was new.

There are affordable DIY kits for removing the haze and resealing the plastic coating of those lenses. They take a bit of elbow grease, but the improvement can be significant. We evaluated several kits and were more impressed with the Sylvania Headlight Restoration Kit and the 3M Headlight Lens Restoration System. Prices for kits typically run $10 to $22.

Learn more in our headlight restoration kit buying guide.

Emergency Kit

If bad holiday weather leaves you stranded alongside a slippery, snowy road, a well-stocked emergency kit can help get you back on your way, or at least make the time waiting for help a lot less stressful.

Emergency kits vary widely in price and content, but they usually include battery jumper cables, a basic first-aid kit, flashlight, space blanket, snow shovel, tow strap, and ice scraper.

We purchased a few winter emergency kits online just to gauge what you might get and how useful they are in a pinch. The ones we bought ranged from about $45 to $75.

They may seem pricey, but you’ll probably spend more than $100 to buy many of the items individually to assemble your own kit. Our team liked the AAA emergency kit, shown here, for its completeness and portability. It includes a metal shovel, cold-weather gear, and many safety essentials in its compact package, all for around $53.

Look for a kit that will complement how and where you drive, and consider how much space it might take up in a car.

Learn more about assembling your own emergency kit.

Car Shirts and Accessories

Car enthusiasts of all ages will enjoy a simple automotive-themed T-shirt, hoodie, baseball hat, or keychain, and they're often quite affordable.

Discount clothing stores like Kohl's and mass-market stores like Walmart often stock such items. A fan may appreciate more official brand apparel available through car dealerships or an automaker's online store.

In addition to the usual items, you might find a cool modern or classic car emblem there that can make for a fun decoration. 

Driving School

Driving schools offer everything from car-control training for inexperienced drivers to advanced skills for wannabe race-car drivers.  

Often held at racetracks around the U.S., one-day events run by the highly respected, established schools listed below start at around $600. But a high-speed ride-along can be had for about $100. Check the links below for specific pricing and locations, and search online for schools based in your region.

One great series that CR actively supports is the teen training program Street Survival. These events hone the skills of a licensed teen by focusing on safe driving techniques and concepts. Street Survival is offered throughout the U.S., including programs twice a year at the CR Auto Test Center. 

It's worth noting that there are some special discounts available on driving schools for the holidays.

• Richard Petty Driving Experience: Sessions range from one-lap ride-alongs to race-driving instructions at tracks across the U.S. Prices range from $100 to $1,920, depending on the course and experience.  

• Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving: Conducted at a track near Phoenix, training courses include advanced teen driving (starting at $799) and training in high-performance driving skills using muscle cars (starting at $1,599). Three- and four-day racing programs are also available, for $5,999 and $6,999, respectively.

• Street Survival: Teen-driving sessions held nationwide; $95.

Performance Tires

Better tires can transform how well a car holds the road. That's why upgrading to a top-rated higher-performance all-season or summer tire can improve a car's handling and braking. In most cases, there's a better replacement tire available than what the car came with or is currently running on. 

An extra-special choice is the Michelin CrossClimate+, our highest-rated performance all-season tire. It's one of a new breed of all-weather tires, an emerging category that uses unique tread designs and enhanced rubber compounds to increase traction across a broad temperature range. This superb performance all-season tire doesn't need to be swapped for winter/snow tires when seasons change unless you live in an extremely snowy area.

See our tire-buying guide and ratings.

A New Car

A new car may be hard to gift-wrap, but if you're in the market for one, there are great end-of-the-year deals available.

We found 2020 models that can be had with projected savings of up to 14 percent off the original window sticker price. And some 2019s from Chrysler, Ford, Kia, and Toyota were spotted with even bigger discounts. Of course, local supply and demand will influence how much a dealer is willing to bend on price.

The 2020 Toyota Avalon is a good choice. It excels in CR's testing, and this popular midsized sedan can be had for up to 14 percent off the  sticker price. 

See our complete list of best end-of-the-year car deals. 

More from Consumer Reports:
Top pick tires for 2016
Best used cars for $25,000 and less
7 best mattresses for couples

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