To keep it short, what should one do to keep the outside of their car looking as close to new as possible over the years, and in what intervals? It's too late for my car, but my wife's car isn't that old and if I can start with hers then hopefully she'll still be attracted to it in 6 years and won't try and trade it in for a younger model....
tl;dr: I'm a big proponent of washing and waxing the car.
For the purposes of bounding the answer to a reasonable number of words:
what should one do to keep the outside of their car looking as close to new as possible over the years
Fundamentally, what do we see when we look at a new car?
- It's clean.
- It's shiny.
- It's not rusty.
... in what intervals?
When it's dirty (for your definition of dirt), it's safe to clean (i.e., you know that you're going to make things better rather than worse) and it fits with your schedule. Bonus points if you enjoy taking care of the car.
So what does this mean in practical terms?
Washing is anything that you can do to remove grime and corrosives (e.g., brake dust and road salt). Buckets and hoses are great if you have the space and the water but sometimes you're reduced to a spray bottle wash in a confined space. You want to make sure that whatever you're using as a cleaner will lift the particulates away and has enough lubrication that any rubbing you do is less likely to grind scratches into your paint.
If you'd like to maintain looks, it's worth washing everything you can see on the car. This includes tires and wheels to remove that nasty brake dust. It's also worth wiping out all your door seams and rubber fittings. You'd be surprised how much grime collects in there.
Waxing is anything that you can do to put a sacrificial layer between the hostile world and your car. This does two important things:
- It makes the car look nice and shiny.
- It keeps the rust demons away from the metal of your car.
Remember, the painted surfaces only have a thin layer of paint under an even thinner layer of clear coat. It's worth putting a little extra on top of all that to shield your car from an unfriendly environment.
Here are some of the waxing-type techniques that I've used:
- Spray-wax: it's basically a thinner wax in a spray bottle. Great for those times when you barely have any time. Definitely better than nothing. You can also use this trick to get wax onto the underside of your car. You can decide whether this is worth it (I've definitely done it).
- A dollop of wax in the wash bucket: this is a good trick (although too much wax will keep your soap from sudsing). Just wash the car as normal and it'll leave a thin layer of wax behind.
- Wash-wash-wax as I described in the linked answer.
- Use a random orbital tool and admit that you're a crazy person. :-)
In the end, it's difficult to make the car worse by trying to take care of it. If you do a little research and invest the elbow grease, you'll be driving something you can be proud of for years.
1) Do a couple of very thorough, professional grade cleanings per year, inside and out. This may include special treatment for the body to remove hard-nosed particles that get stuck to the paint. You can try to do it yourself with some special clay bars available for it.
2) Wash the car every week by hand with warm water and soap.
3) Pay attention to dings and chips in the bumpers and paint. They aren't that difficult to treat and they are really important when considering the overall appearance. Just touching up dings with a paint brush can mean a lot.
4) Keep the wheels and wheel arches clean, and when you clean the wheels, apply one of those oily coating to the tire wall to express a more clean look and avoid dirt to get stuck to it while you drive it.
If you are consistent with this your car will look brand new for a long time.