Choosing the Right Wet-Dry Vacuum for Your Car Upholstery

Vehicle interiors serve as mobile storage containers for the remnants of our daily lives. Whether it’s food and drink spills, transporting pets, or dealing with messy items, cars can quickly become dirty. Accumulated spills, pet fur, and conventional dirt, if left unattended, can lead to challenging issues.

The remedy involves implementing a regular maintenance routine, which should include the use of a robust upholstery cleaner, commonly referred to as a wet-dry vacuum. While spray and wipe products are suitable for quick clean-ups and detailing, the interiors of most daily-driven vehicles rapidly gather dirt, oil, debris, and unexpected fast-food spills. To effectively address these issues, a high-quality wet-dry vacuum is essential.

Typically functioning like dry vacuums, upholstery cleaners provide the added advantage of applying a deep-penetrating soap and water solution to saturate the fabric, encapsulating stains. Subsequently, the entire mess is extracted through powerful suction. These vacuums feature two tanks to separate clean and dirty water, with the “dirty” tank revealing evidence of their effectiveness. Although there are slight variations among units, some incorporate a scrubbing action, steam, or require the cleaning agent to dry before extraction. In any case, these devices, with their liquid distribution and containment capabilities, outperform simple spray and wipe solutions.

The 5 Best Car Upholstery Wet-Dry Vacuum Cleaners

Bissell Little Green Pro Portable Carpet & Upholstery Cleaner: Best Overall

Hoover CleanSlate Plus Carpet & Upholstery Spot Cleaner: Best Runner-Up

Kenmore KW2001 Portable Carpet Spot Cleaner: Best Scrubbing Action

Bissell Big Green Professional Carpet Cleaner: Best Upholstery Cleaner For Max Capacity

Dupray One Plus Steam Cleaner: Best Upholstery Cleaner For Steaming


To identify the optimal upholstery cleaner for your vehicle, we analyzed products widely accessible to a diverse range of U.S. consumers, considering factors such as performance, price, and overall value. Our evaluation took into account a multitude of end-user ratings and feedback from various testers. Forbes Wheels meticulously assessed 10 of the highest-rated upholstery cleaners available in the market. The final selection for the top five was determined based on customer reviews and ratings.

Our rating criteria encompass price, suction power, tank capacity, attachments, included supplies, portability, and brand reputation. It’s noteworthy that upholstery vacuums can also serve a dual purpose within a household, adding to their overall value. We assess all car upholstery wet-dry vacuum cleaners using these weighted metrics:

  • Cleaning power (30%)
  • Efficacy of brush attachments (20%)
  • Portability (20%)
  • Quality (20%)
  • Price (10%)

What Are the Different Types of Upholstery Cleaners?

Spray-on products in cans are available, but for thorough cleaning and a lasting investment, a car upholstery wet-dry vacuum is the preferred choice. These vacuum cleaners fall into three main categories: small and portable units suitable for both small home tasks and automotive interiors, large commercial or industrial-grade machines available for rent or purchase, and a newer generation of compact cordless units designed for quick cleanups or emergency use.

The majority of this list focuses on the first type, as they offer an optimal blend of value, portability, and effectiveness. While some include a motorized scrubbing component, comparable results can be achieved with a non-motorized unit and a bit of manual effort. Large commercial units deliver excellent performance but are bulky and can be expensive to buy, though rental options are available. These units are well-suited for extensive home cleaning projects and are generally constructed to withstand heavy-duty use.

The third and most recent type comprises compact cordless units powered by rechargeable batteries, akin to cordless drills or vacuums. While undeniably convenient, they are currently best suited for minor cleanup tasks. If intending to store one in your vehicle for emergencies, periodic checks on the battery’s charge-holding capacity are advisable.

It’s a step-by-step process:

1. Thoroughly vacuum the area

Professionals recommend this as the crucial first step to expedite upholstery or carpet shampooing and stain removal. Ensure the desired area is completely free of debris by covering it repeatedly.

2. Pre-treat stubborn stains

For old or stubborn stains, manufacturers and professionals often advise applying a pre-treatment. This can be a proprietary formulation provided or recommended by the cleaning unit manufacturer, a separate solution available at retail, or a mixture like Simple Green and water. Always test any cleaner in an inconspicuous spot first to check for fading or other undesirable effects.

3. Be patient

Allow the pre-treatment to sit according to the manufacturer’s instructions. If using a general agent, thoroughly dampen the area, gently agitate (being careful not to damage the fibers), then rinse and blot the area dry.

4. Start vacuuming following the vacuum’s instructions

Begin using the wet-dry cleaner precisely as per the manufacturer’s instructions. The “wet” cycle typically involves spraying or injecting the cleaning solution into the fabric or carpet, followed by a single motion to suction it back up along with the embedded stains and dirt. Some units may require a second pass to remove the solution, completing the “dry” part of the process.

5. Let your carpet dry (and be patient again)

While air drying is convenient and preferred, you can expedite the process by blotting and using a fan or small heater. Be cautious, as excessive heat can make some fabrics and substrates stiff and fibrous.

What Types of Stains Can Be Eliminated?

Thanks to advancements in modern science, nearly every kind of stain and odor in a vehicle’s interior can be effectively removed. Unfortunately, time is a critical factor, as the longer a stain remains, the more challenging it becomes to eliminate. As always, stains based on proteins—such as blood, dairy, sweat, and other bodily fluids—pose the most significant challenges, but there are specialized products designed to combat these stains. For certain stains like crayon marks, applying heat and gently scraping with a blunt object may aid in the removal process. Removing ink stains from magic markers can be particularly tough and might necessitate a professional application of solvent or material re-dying.

Richard Dematteo

Richard Dematteo is the founder and editor-in-chief of Stuff About Cars. He is an off-road expedition guide and amateur mechanic. He has crashed a lot which is the major reason he knows a lot about repairing tools and various shining and scratch removing products. His crashes and his knowledge about car stuff is one of the major sources of information for the reviews featured on the website. He is particularly fond of old trucks and tuner cars.

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