Few holiday shoppers can spring for one of the luxury cars wrapped in bows that automakers advertise on TV at this time of year, but there are fun and practical gifts for $25 or less that will rev the engine of any auto enthusiast. Each of these 13 gift items, from accessories to gadgets to maintenance supplies, garners strong ratings from online reviewers and is widely available at the usual mass merchandise emporia and specialty retailers.
PHONE HOLDER FOR CAR
Many older cars lack navigation systems, Bluetooth, and other modern apps. Phone mounts for cars let drivers place a phone at eye level on the dashboard, where they can look directly at the screen. "That's a whole lot better than having a cop pull you over or getting into an accident," says Akshay Anand, senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book. A holder usually clicks into a car's vent, no tools required, and "one size fits all." On Amazon, reviewers laud the quality of the Atill universal air vent magnetic car mount ($9) and Jamron 2-in-1 universal car phone mount holder ($14.70).
Let an auto buff add a touch of cool to even the most mundane car with a decal that might go on the windshield, on the dashboard, or atop the nameplate. Anand proudly displays a cool decal someone gave him that depicts a slightly different nameplate for his Nissan 350Z. Other examples include vinyl letters that spell out MUSTANG on the rear bumper ($15 on Amazon). Shoppers can find decals for most any marque, although retailers generally carry the greatest selection for sport models like the Ford Mustang or Chevrolet Corvette.
CHAMOIS CLEANING CLOTHS
Car enthusiasts who wash their vehicles by hand will appreciate chamois cloths or mitts, considered the gold standard for car care. Soft chamois won't scratch a vehicle's paint but does wear out over time, so having a fresh supply on hand is a must. Stick to products marked "microfiber," which is gentlest on automotive finishes. Five-star offerings on Amazon include Dry Rite heavyweight premium plush microfiber cloths ($14.45 for a two-pack) and Kevian Clean's microfiber auto-detailing towels ($20 for a three-pack).
CUSTOM LICENSE PLATE OR FRAME
Combine a love of cars with a favorite sports team or another interest with a custom license plate or frame. Holiday shoppers can find items that honor music groups, car brands, political causes, and more. The Bully WL041-C GMC license plate frame ($13) and the Bell Automotive spike license plate frame ($14) are just two possibilities available on Amazon. Novelty plates start at about $4, but first make sure state law allows non-standard plates on the front of a car.
ROADSIDE EMERGENCY KIT
A roadside emergency kit like the AAA 42-piece premium road kit ($23.70 at Home Depot) contains the basics needed to get a vehicle running if something goes wrong. The kit comes with jumper cables, a flashlight, and a safety vest to wear during roadside repairs -- all packed in a handy carrying case designed to fit in the trunk. It's one gift you hope never gets used.
ELECTRONIC TIRE-PRESSURE GAUGE
Forget those old pencil tire-pressure gauges, which aren't especially accurate, anyway. Electronic gauges, with digital readouts, are more precise and easier to read. Many sport a built-in LED light for easy viewing and some even come with carrying cases. This stocking stuffer is especially useful for a driver with an older car that lacks a built-in tire-pressure monitor. (Remember, properly inflating tires extends tread life and helps with gas mileage.) Consumers posting reviews on Amazon like the accuracy and user-friendliness of digital tire pressure gauges from Ryder Tools ($11.44) and Betty's Auto Shop ($11.25).
Car wash chains often sell gift cards that are good for a given dollar amount or a set number of cleanings. Another option is a gift card from an auto-detailing shop. These businesses use special materials to clean and wax vehicles by hand, achieving a virtual "like-new" appearance. The price of a full workup can hit $150, but a $25 gift card covers at least part of that expense. Many detailers also offer lower-priced services, such as interior- or exterior-only cleanings, which start at about $25.
Gearheads who own custom cars they rarely drive will appreciate a battery tender, a little electronic device that plugs into a standard outlet to monitor the battery and charge it up when necessary. Auto parts stores and big-box retailers typically carry these gadgets, many of which sell for $40 or more. Sub-$25 models with good customer reviews include the Black and Decker BM3B battery charger/maintainer ($20 on Amazon).
MOTOR OIL AND OIL FILTER
Do-it-yourself auto buffs can always use engine oil and oil filters. The total price of a case of oil can soar past $50, but 5-quart jugs -- plenty for a single oil change -- run less than $25. Cheap motor oils that boast high ratings on Walmart.com include Quaker State 5W30 Advanced Durability ($14 for 5 quarts) and Mobil 1 5W30 ($25 for 5 quarts). Good cheap oil filters include the Fram High Mileage HM16 ($6.50 on Amazon) and the Mobil 1 M1-110 Extended Performance ($9.74 on Amazon). Be sure the filter fits the recipient's vehicle and the oil is the specified type.
Auto lovers may not ordinarily treat themselves to high-end car waxes, wheel cleaners, tire dressings, and the like, but these practical maintenance supplies typically cost $5 to $20 at big-box or specialty retailers. Anand, of Kelley Blue Book, recommends sticking to premium brands such as Meguair's or Mothers, names that will mean something to someone who is serious about cars. On Amazon, a quart of Meguiar's Ultimate Liquid Wax sells for $17.19 and 24 ounces of Mothers Protectant goes for about $14.09.
Many car guys and gals love the car-oriented films of late actor Steve McQueen, a real-life auto aficionado who did all his own racing scenes. "Bullitt," "Le Mans," and other McQueen films from the 1960s and 1970s enjoy a cult following to this day, as do actor Vin Diesel's more recent "Fast and Furious" movies. On Amazon, "Furious 7" (the latest in the franchise) costs $11 on DVD and $12.25 on Blu-ray, and "Bullitt" goes for $5 on DVD and $15 on Blu-ray. Sets of multiple films start at about $15. A car enthusiast with a backseat DVD player will appreciate a kid-friendly film such as Disney's "Cars" ($20 on Amazon) to keep children entertained and allow parents to focus on the road.
Many car connoisseurs enjoy Nascar races, auto shows, or other vehicle-oriented events. "If you love cars, it's all there at an auto show -- dream cars, exotic cars, everything," says Barbara Pudney of the Paragon Group, which organizes shows in Boston, Denver, and other cities. Adult tickets cost $10. Nascar holds events at tracks around the country, and tickets to the premiere Sprint Cup Series start at about $25 (but vary considerably by venue). If that's too pricey, many tracks sell gift certificates in any denomination. "Watching a race on TV doesn't do it justice," says Kristen Lestock, spokeswoman for the New Hampshire Motor Speedway. "Live is the way to go."
PARTS-STORE GIFT CARD
When all else fails, a gift card from a local auto parts store is a sure win. Gift cards acknowledge a love of cars while affording the recipient total control over what to buy, relieving the gift giver from making tough choices. "Car people know what their vehicles need, what maintenance jobs are coming up, and what brands they like," Anand says. AutoZone, O'Reilly, and most other auto parts chains sell gift cards in various denominations. Many can be ordered online.