They say you are what you drive. But if you drive a cheap car, it doesn’t have to say you’re cheap (let’s call it brilliantly frugal instead).
There are quite a few ways you can make your car look more expensive than it really is for less than $100 — sometimes for even less than $20. You probably won’t have to pay an installer either, since minimal to no mechanical skills are required, saving even more money.
Add a Steering Wheel Cover
A steering wheel cover increases the interior’s flair. There are many designs and types available, including leather, padded, carbon fiber and whimsical, such as tie-dye. You can choose colors and themes, too, such as your favorite sports team or brand of car. There even are covers that glow in the dark. It’s not only a cosmetic change; steering wheel covers can be more comfortable, cooler to the touch after your car has been baking in the sun or grippy, adding a layer of safety. You’ll have plenty of covers to choose from starting in the $15 range. Putting one on is as simple as cleaning the existing surface and putting the cover in place.
Wax Your Car
A healthy serving of elbow grease can give your car a shiny, new look. A good wax job also will protect the paint from exposure to damaging elements and could save you a paint job. Wax products begin at about $5.
Put On a Car Bra
There are ways to make a cheap car look not cheap, and that includes keeping it in pristine condition, free of body and paint damage. Adding a bra helps to protect the paint so it continues to look like new and remains scratch- and chip-free. The bra also prevents dirt, road salt, dust and bird droppings from making direct contact with the paint, thereby protecting the finish. If you go with a clear version of the protective-film bra, you can apply it anywhere, and it’ll be discreet. Pro installers could charge a few hundred dollars to apply a clear bra over the entire vehicle, but you can get a roll for as little as $12 and do it yourself.
Get a Trunk Organizer
Even the neatest people might find their trunks becoming an unruly mess as things pile up and shift as you drive. A trunk organizer is a cheap purchase that can help keep this often disorderly part of your car looking nice and neat. You can find trunk organizers for as little as $15.
Shine Your Tires
Want tires that glisten in the sunlight? Simply use a tire shine spray to get this aesthetically pleasing effect. You can find cans of tire shine coating for as little as $8.50.
Install a Backup Camera
A backup camera is now government-mandated equipment on new cars, but you’re not out of luck if yours is without one. This safety feature will modernize your car, help with blind spots and allow you to see what’s happening behind you. But adding a backup camera can get expensive when it comes to installation and the type of screen your car requires. However, you can find kits for about $40 that are plug-and-play, connecting to your car’s reverse lights or power point, making for easy installation. Sometimes, good enough is better than nothing.
Add a Tire Pressure Monitoring System
The federal government required that a tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS) be standard equipment in new vehicles in 2007, but what if your car is older than that? You can make it feel less cheap by upgrading to modern technology. A TPMS kit will keep an eye out for low tire pressure. It can be expensive to add if the TPMS is a more complex series of sensors and wiring, but there are wireless Bluetooth-based setups starting at around $80.
Put On Seat Covers
Seat covers are a jack of all trades. They give your interior a custom look, can be washed or wiped if they get dirty, can add comfort and might just keep you cool or warm, depending on what’s up outside. You also can opt for pet-friendly covers. Choose from basic, camo, sheepskin, towel (indeed what you’re imagining), cushioned and more. And if you’re really into this idea, aside from the zillions of colors and designs available, you also can get custom covers with a photo you submit. Seat covers are a simple installation, and you can find them for as little as $16.
Repair Your Paint
Quality paint jobs or even touch-ups from a professional can be costly, so here’s a completely affordable way to hide minor, superficial chips and scratches in your car’s paint: a repair pen. Typically available for less than $15, it takes minutes or just seconds to give damaged paint a spiffier look. Bonus: Pens are available to color match to the factory paint color.
Put In Floor Mats
Everything you step on outside becomes a layer of crud on the floor inside, whether it’s dirt clumps, rocks, snow or mud, and that can soil your clean car in just one step. Adding floor mats will function as a protective layer — and hide what already has happened to the carpet. You can pick up floor mats in a style to match your carpet or reflect your personality. Car mats are manufactured of rubber or carpet and start as low as $13 per set. Installation is as simple as dropping the mat into place. Be sure to check the dimensions or for vehicle-specific products before you buy.
Replace Your Shifter Knob
Another simple way to make an interior look a little more refined is to replace your shifter knob — if you’re tolerating the current one popping off in your hand while shifting, it’s making everything about your car seem cheaper. But changing the knob isn’t only for a better appearance — some have a more comfortable grip and that can even equal quicker shifts and better performance. It should be a straightforward swap, too. No matter what color or how weird of a design you can think of, that knob probably exists and likely for less than $50.
Update Your Grille
You have options when it comes to the grille, and you can give your vehicle’s front end a complete unique redo, be it a grille insert, overlay or replacement. An insert goes in the center of your current grille, while an overlay goes over the existing grille. A replacement is used in place of your factory grille. Prices start under $100 but can exceed that, depending on how fancy you want to get. If you’re looking for the cheapest, easiest-to-install option, probably go with the overlay.
Enhance Your Pedals
Switching to aluminum or another type of cover for your accelerator and brake pedals adds a one-of-a-kind look but also can have some perks: You’ll gain a nonslip, scratch-resistant and comfortable surface for your feet as well as the illusion that your cheap car has racing genes. Don’t want to spend a lot of money to improve your interior? This can be done for as little as $8 and should be a quick DIY project.
If your car doesn’t have Bluetooth that allows you to stream music or use your cellphone hands-free, a few options exist. You can use a universal kit that stands alone — such kits don’t need to interact with your car’s stereo — or you can use an adapter that connects to your stereo or switch to an aftermarket stereo that’s Bluetooth-enabled. The latter can be surprisingly inexpensive, hovering around $50. The other two can be found for under $15 and less than $65, respectively. You probably can guess which installation has more steps and therefore may be better left to an installer. (Tip: It’s the stereo).
Stick On a Spoiler
A rear spoiler affects your car’s aerodynamics, and in the process, it can give a slight boost to your miles per gallon and help the car handle better at speed. The wing-thing also can scream “sporty car” (not to be confused with “sports car”) with a quick-add installation. You have a choice when it comes to the type of spoiler, too, from ones that stick on via adhesive to others that require drilling. Design options are aplenty, including flush mount, but this is also where the cost starts to climb. The cost also depends on the type of car you have, so keep that in mind if you’re hoping for a custom or adjustable spoiler. Also, they aren’t just for cars; truck spoilers exist, too. You can find a lip spoiler for less than $40.
Switch Your Fuel Door
With options such as stainless steel or chrome-plated, it’s possible that upgrading the fuel-filler door could make the rest of your car’s exterior look cheaper — but we say it’s worth the risk. Locking versions also are available. Don’t want to spend more than $30 to make your car look more expensive than it is? Done.
Add a Hood Protector
Who doesn’t love products that do double duty? In this case, a hood protector gives your vehicle a minor makeover and shields the hood and windshield from bugs and road debris. There’s also an aerodynamic advantage, too. You shouldn’t have a problem finding one for less than $60. Between the instructions and included mounting hardware, you shouldn’t need to bring in a pro for the installation.
Add Fender Flares
Maybe you can’t afford new tires and wheels, but that shouldn’t stop you from adding fender flares to make your car stand out while also protecting it from road debris. Various styles exist, and they can be put on without drilling. You can choose from a wider/aggressive look to a mild aesthetic change. The price will depend on the cool factor, so if you want to spend less than $100, expect to see fairly basic choices. If you can open your budget up a bit, you might be more satisfied.
Add Tailgate Protection
Once again, this is an upgrade that is not only for custom looks but also to protect the paint and body from scratches and dents when you load and unload items into the bed or cargo area. A tailgate protector (or tailgate cap) should go on easily with some form of included tape, without drilling into the sheet metal. Tip: You might be able to find a kit that’s a hood and tailgate combo package. Bundling could save some cash, as you could be looking at about $50 for the tailgate cap alone.
Add a Step
Adding a step will give you a more graceful way to reach inside the tailgate or cargo area, or to climb into the vehicle when you don’t have the budget to buy running boards. Some steps attach to the hitch receiver while others mount underbody. You can find them for around $40, but if you feel like blowing a bunch of cash, look for a retractable version.
Swap the Center Console
A new center console could reinvigorate your interior, but even if your budget is $100 or less, you can step up to a locking model — and what could upgrade your cheap car more than the perception that you have valuables to hide? You’ll probably also gain more storage, a comfy armrest and cupholders.
Apply a Wrap
Why go to a pro when you can do it yourself for a lot less? That’s for sure the situation when it comes to adding a vinyl wrap to your car. It’s less permanent than paint — it’s a peel-and-stick proposition, but just be careful not to get sloppy and leave bubbles or make it crooked. The more creative and custom the wrap, the more it costs, but $10 can get you started.
Screw In New Bulbs
Brighter headlight bulbs of the LED or Xenon HID variety are the norm now, but you can upgrade your dim lights or a dead bulb for a few dollars. Once you decide which, it should be a simple replacement job.
Put On an Exhaust Tip
Do you have a favorite geometric shape? Switching the exhaust tips is one of the only upgrades you can make to your car in which that part of your personality can finally be fulfilled. Oval, square, round and rectangular exhaust tips are available, and you can go with chrome, black or another style. There’s not a real performance gain that comes with adding one, but your car’s outward appearance will see the gain. If you’re looking for easy installation, avoid any exhaust tips that require welding. You should be able to get something that looks like it cost money while costing less than $50.
Replace the Valve Stem Caps
If you’re not driving around with a valve stem cap on each tire, breaking news: Your car looks like you don’t give a rat about it. It’s beyond appearances though: That little cap keeps dirt, dust and moisture out of the valve stem. Whether you need to replace one or more, or even if all are intact, new caps are a super cheap and easy upgrade. They are about 50 cents each if you buy the standard ones in bulk or are a few dollars each for special ones. You can customize caps with one of your photos, although if that doesn’t appeal to you, there are logos, colors and tons of designs. Rhinestones? Those exist, too.
Give your car’s exterior a refresh by repairing existing pinstripes that have faded or applying new ones. You also can add pinstripe graphics. Pinstripes will give your monotone car a splash of color, create an optical change depending on where you place them or distract from something awfully ugly, such as a dent. There are kits available for basic pinstripes as well as ones with special brushes and templates inspired by the famed pinstriping master Steve Kafka. Doing it yourself is as simple or complex as your skills allow. Prices start around $10 for the most basic, easiest pinstripe: tape.
Install a Short-Throw Shifter
A short-throw shifter is “one of the easiest and least expensive performance upgrades that you can perform,” according to CJ Pony Parts. This upgrade, which is suitable for manual transmission cars, reduces the lengths of your throws — or shifts — by shortening the distance between your hand and the pivot point of the shifter. This upgrade creates tighter, shorter gear shifts.
You can install a short-throw shifter yourself by purchasing a kit on Amazon. Be sure to buy a kit that is specifically designed for your make and model. You can find highly rated short-throw shifter kits for less than $30.
Apply a Dashboard Cover
If your dashboard has been looking a little worse for wear or you simply want to switch up its appearance, a dashboard cover makes for an easy upgrade. You can find velour and vinyl wrap kits for your car that you can adhere yourself that start at just $20.
Add a Phone Mount
No GPS, Apple Carplay or Android Auto in your cheap car? No problem. A phone mount allows you to easily see your phone and use its map apps to get around. You can find phone mounts that attach to your dashboard or air vent for under $15.
Add a USB Charger
Speaking of phones, it’s easy to add a USB phone charger to your car if it doesn’t come with one. These chargers plug into your car’s cigarette lighter, and many have dual ports so you can charge more than one device at once. For around $8, you’ll never have to worry about your phone dying while you’re on the road again.
Use a Spare Tire Cover
Spare tire covers come in hard and soft form, and aside from making the rear of your vehicle look a little more interesting, the cover protects your tire from sun damage, dirt and dust. Now, it can get more costly if you go with one that’s lockable, and overall pricing depends on the make and model of vehicle, but a basic soft cover starts as low as $15. Covers can be plain or emblazoned with logos and designs.
Install Door Lock Covers
Adding door lock covers is an easy way to upgrade your car’s interior — just make sure to buy covers that are compatible with your car model. You can choose from a variety of finishes, from stainless steel to rhinestone-encrusted, with four-packs selling for around $15.
Add Window Deflectors
Adding window deflectors will allow you to enjoy some fresh air no matter what the weather — they enable you to keep the windows cracked, even when it’s raining. Window deflectors also “help keep the sun out of your eyes, reduce interior wind noise and fogging, and can also help reduce interior heat,” according to AutoZone. A four-piece set of window deflectors costs around $60.
Add Car Door Light Projectors
This surprisingly inexpensive upgrade will add some flair to your vehicle, with two-packs of car door light projectors selling for around $15. You can choose to have the projector display your car logo or another logo of your choosing on the ground each time you open your car door.
Replace Your Hubcaps
Replacing your hubcaps or wheel covers can give your car a whole new look. You can choose to go all chrome or go for covers with color accents for a sportier look. A set of four wheel covers will cost you around $40.
Add a Hood Ornament
As long as you choose tastefully, a hood ornament can add an air of luxury to your vehicle. The cost will depend on the ornament you choose, but you can find a wide selection for under $100.
Upgrade Your Emblem
Upgrading or adding an emblem to your car is another easy way to improve the exterior of your car. This is an upgrade you can make for $20 or less.
Replace Steering Rack Bushings
It’s likely that your car has a rack and pinion steering setup, in which the steering wheel is directly connected to a steering rack that helps the wheels move with your input. This rack is attached to the body with rubber bushings that can deteriorate over time, Jalopnik reported. Replacing these rubber bushings makes the steering input more direct, which results in a sportier and more precise feel. The cost of steering rack bushings depends on your car model, but many are under $30.
Install a Strut Tower Bar
Strut tower bars are more than just an aesthetic upgrade. These bars control chassis flex to improve your car’s handling and prevent fatigue cracking of the strut. You can buy a strut tower bar for around $80, and they are fairly simple to install yourself with just a socket wrench.
Install a Boost Controller
Boost controllers allow you to increase the performance and response from your engine by changing the amount of pressure going to the wastegate. Jalopnik recommends the Turbosmart Boost-Tee for Boost Controller, which sells for under $78 on Amazon.
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Gabrielle Olya contributed to the reporting for this article.