The clean sweep

Take four identical hire cars, a pile of dirt and a plethora of places in Abu Dhabi to take your car to be cleaned, and you've got all the ingredients for the Car Wash Challenge.

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Here at Motoring, we like to do our bit to clean up the streets of Abu Dhabi. That entails scolding bad drivers and pointing out possible solutions to traffic problems. But this week, we're taking our mantra literally and going further than usual to weed out those who continue to sully our roads; not the drivers with bad manners, but those with filthy, grimy cars. Now, you have no excuse for it. Welcome to the Car Wash Challenge. With such a passion for cars in this city - not to mention the large number of them - the options for cleaning vehicles here are many. But which one is best for you? Leave it to us to show you the way. For our not-so-scientific trial, we needed some test subjects, so we rented four identical Nissan Altimas, all in white, the unofficial official colour of the UAE. (I'm sure the good people at Thrifty thought we were using them for a wedding, but they would be sadly mistaken, and are probably horrified at reading this. Let me apologise to them in advance.)

Then, the fun part began. We drove out behind Marina Mall near to the ocean, and began making these cars as dirty as we could. First came the buckets of water, then came the handfuls of sand. As a final stab at making this a real test of cleaning might, we spun around in the dirt, kicking up grime to cover the cars entirely. We even threw handfuls of sand into the interiors. All in all, they were thoroughly filthy. Perfect.

We assembled back at Motoring HQ, and then started the hard work: scouring the city for the various car washes. We wanted to make the test as realistic as possible, as if any person in their regular day just needed a car wash. So, with the exception of the Eco-Wash, which has to be scheduled in advance, we dropped in to various places to find out how accessible they would be to wash. We couldn't possibly cover all the options, but our cross-section of car wash alternatives would be a good overview of what's on offer in the capital. Obviously, two cars had to go through the mucky process twice for our tests. The options were judged not just on the quality of the wash, but also on their convenience and cost, essential elements to make the choices practical as well as functional. Continue on to find out which car wash would be best for you.

I first tried the Adnoc Auto Wash at Manasir on Al Khaleej Al Arabi Street, only to be told it was closed. I missed out by one car before they curiously closed at midday. So I went around the corner to an identical Adnoc Auto Wash on 32nd Street and joined a queue of four cars. We sat there, adding to our collective carbon footprint with the engines and AC running as we waited for our turn in the machine that uses 220 litres of water per customer. A surly man took my Dh30 with a grunt and directed me into the car wash with jittery hand signals. I put the handbrake on, turned the music up and sat back as the car was sprayed with a thick layer of foam. Violent jets of water cut through the foam, roaring as they pounded the roof. Once the machine had done its work, three far more cheerful chaps descended on the Altima polishing, drying and cleaning out the nooks and crannies that the machine had missed. For a finishing touch, paper floor mats advertising Adnoc were put down and the car was sprayed with air-freshener. The whole experience took precisely 43 minutes so it wasn't a massive drain on my time, even if it was a drain on water resources. The Dh30 didn't break the bank and the car came out the other side pretty clean indeed. It's a cheap, reasonably time-efficient way to wash the car, as long as you can live with the water wastage guilt. - Georgia Lewis

There is no car wash more basic than the man in the street with a bucket and a rag, and that is exactly what I found in the car park of the Abela supermarket on 26th street near the Corniche. But this was more no-frills than expected. He did not even have a tap to hand so he walked to a nearby fountain and filled his bucket with slightly murky water, and he did not use detergent. After brushing off sand with his hands, he gamely went to work, even though the car was parked in an obstructive spot as no spaces were available. Afterwards, he wiped the car down, but when he had finished after 19 minutes it could have been cleaner. I had to switch the windscreen wipers and washers on, and the back windscreen had smears of dirt across it.There was still sand around the car's nameplate, on the grille and in the recesses between the lights and the panels. My car washer, who was possibly breaching his visa rules by doing this informal work, charged Dh20, which seemed expensive given the basic service. Also, he wanted another Dh20 to clean the interior, which would have been daylight robbery. It was convenient, though, as he started straight away. Many people pay a monthly fee of, say, Dh100 for a car washer to clean their vehicle regularly, and it might be the best option - but only if you find someone more effective than the guy I paid. - Daniel Bardsley

With my Altima wearing the dirt scars of a morning driving the car around in the dust, I was despatched to Al Wahda Mall to find one of the men who push pod-like buggies around the car park waiting to clean cars for busy shoppers. I quickly spotted an attendant and he calmly got to work on the car using his GeoWash pod. These natty little numbers use water and biodegradable chemicals sparingly, so I had no need to worry about any harm being done to the Altima's paintwork or, relatively, to the environment. I meanwhile had time to have a cup of coffee in the mall. Which is, essentially, the genius of this system - you just don't waste any time waiting around for your car to be cleaned, rather you simply park, shop and then return to your car to find it shiny and new again. Or at least you should. There are, however, two downsides to the GeoWash. Firstly, the mildly grubby interior of the car remained untouched and, secondly, it's really designed to buff up a car coated in light dust and is not built to cope with the heavy grime I'd managed to collect on the Altima. So, while the car looked surface clean it was not quite pristine as I drove away from the mall. Was it worth the Dh20 I paid for the privilege? Yes, probably. - Nick March

Eco-Wash is a waterless car wash where dirt is removed with products for different kinds of dirt, such as dust and insects. The containers are recycled and the soft cloths are reusable, and the company also participates in a carbon offsetting programme to compensate for using its own cars. The service comes to your home or office, so we summoned them to Motoring HQ for a 2.30pm appointment and, pleasingly, they arrived early. The Nissan Altima was dirty to the point that hardened lumps of muddy, gritty sand had dried in the sun. This level of baked-on filth is not, we were told, suitable for an Eco-Wash, as a spray of water is the only way to remove the grit without damaging the paintwork.

So, we presented the guys with our photographer's car. Galen's white Corolla was in need of a little love and attention. Because they come to you, you can get on with whatever you're doing while the car is being washed. We had the basic Eco-Wash, which takes about 40 minutes and costs Dh60, but there are packages available to clean the interior and exterior which cost more. As long as the car isn't encrusted in extreme dirt, Eco-Wash is effective. The products used add a protective layer to the car so it doesn't need to be washed as often, according to the company. It's not as cheap as the car park wash but the results were very impressive and the eco-consciousness of the company adds to the feel-good factor. - Georgia Lewis

One of the most renowned places for cleaning vehicles in Abu Dhabi is the Oasis Car Centre, located in the Bain Jisrain area near the Shangri-La hotel. Indeed, all manner of cars, from Fords to Ferraris, can be found queuing for men in red overalls to hose, scrub, rub and dust them in the centre's many bays. Oasis offers many levels of cleaning options, including upholstery cleaning for really grimy or stained interiors. With no queue, I opted for the high-pressure wash, which cost Dh50. A worker painstakingly sprayed the entire car over with a powerful jet, then soaped it up and sprayed again. When finished, the car was moved out to wait for the interior cleaning.

After about 15 minutes, the Altima was rubbed down to dry, then the doors and boot were opened for attention. While there was no product used, the dash and plastics were wiped down and the seats, carpets and boot were brushed and vacuumed. The final job was a tyre foam. All in all, it was a fine result, but I was left waiting for almost two hours, and that doesn't even include a wax. And, unless you want to get your hair cut or watch TV in a smokey shop on the premises, there is scant to do but stand in the sun while your car gets attention. I couldn't even wait for the high-end steam wash, which adds cleaning the engine bay and undercarriage, for Dh70. We were told there was a 90-minute wait to even start, and I thought four hours of my time was just too much to justify cleaning a lowly Altima. For a regular clean, if you have half a day to spare, perhaps Oasis is a good idea. But if you love your car that much, you could do the same on your own in less time, for free. - Neil Vorano

Back in the United Kingdom, my home country, washing your dad's car at the weekend is a ritual almost every child used to endure to earn a little extra money and keep on the right side of your parents. It is a classic weekend occupation played out on the drives and side streets of Britain's suburban roads. So, when Georgia drove her Altima into our Abu Dhabi car port and we began giving the Nissan a home wash, I couldn't help but feel a little nostalgic for the days when my father used to stroll around our newish, red Triumph 2000 and tell me "you missed a bit there, son". With buckets in hand, it didn't take long to get the Nissan looking good again. Sure, the end result lacked polish (we only used water, after all), and we didn't even bother with the interior, but the sense of satisfaction brought about by doing the job yourself is hard to beat. A word of warning though: according to municipality laws, it is illegal to have water running out onto the street, even though it would probably evaporate in 10 minutes. The decision is yours. - Nick March

As you can see, Abu Dhabi offers many alternatives for a shiny, sparkling set of wheels. It all depends on what you can afford, in both time and money, and how good a job you want. The Adnoc stations are fine, but they could get very busy very randomly. And the Oasis centre offers the best clean, especially for really dirty cars, but it's for those who don't have a job to go to and who want to hang out with fellow car nuts. But from our standpoint, the convenience of getting your car washed at home or while shopping are the best buys for your dirham. The Eco-Wash folks are the most expensive of this lot but do a good job - provided your car isn't too dirty - while the mall cleaners get your ride reasonably clean while you shop for groceries. And if you pay a neighbourhood man on the sly, your car probably won't have a chance to get really dirty. So, a regular clean is probably the best solution, given that prevention is usually better than cure.