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Great car care gifts for the holidays

Great car care gifts for the holidays

As winter and the holiday season fast approaches, now can be a great time to purchase a meaningful gift for the driver on your list--something that can give them convenience, safety, and security.

While many recipients may dream of something fun and fancy, these practical gifts show you truly care. To aid you in this quest, we present recommendations below in several key categories based on our extensive testing. This will make shopping easier for you and ensure that the recipient gets a smart gift.

Car battery
About as much fun to receive as a gift as the box a toy comes in, a car battery is nonetheless an essential automotive component; the car simply won't leave the driveway without a working battery. Car batteries only last a few years, and it is wise to have it tested when the car is service and to be proactive in replacing it. What can make this gift special is choosing a model that has good life performance, and scored well in our cold-cranking amps and reserve-capacity testing. Because this is a gift, go the extra mile to install the battery and recycle the old one. From year to year, we find that model performance varies, so it is important not to choose a battery by reputation. This year, we saw standout performance from DieHard, EverStart, and Interstate in several categories, including the DieHard Advanced Gold 50778 (Group 34/78), EverStart MAXX-35N (Group 35), Interstate Mega-Tron II MT-75 (Group 75).

See our car battery buying advice and ratings.

Car wax
A coat of good car wax can help protect a car's finish from the potential hazards of road grime and salt. If the weather is already too cold to apply one more coat before winter, this gift can still get your driver ready for the spring. Before buying a car wax, be aware that premium car wax brands don't necessarily hold up any better than lower-priced alternatives. In fact, some moderately priced liquids scored near the top of our Ratings--better than some products costing twice as much. We find that paste waxes are easier to use than liquid waxes, but liquid waxes cleaned the best. For pastes, Nu Finish NFP-80 is a best buy, and for liquid, Nu Finish NF-76 and Meguiar's Cleaner Wax A1216 are smart choices.

See our car wax buying guide and ratings.

Headlight restoration kits
Headlights with an aged, cloudy, or hazy look are becoming increasingly common, as the average age of all cars on the road continues to rise. A headlight restoration kit can not only freshen the appearance of an older car, but improve its safety for nighttime driving. We recently tried four products on dozens of headlights, and our tests show that even the poorest performer of the bunch can dramatically improve light output, depending on how badly the lenses are weathered. Among the kits we evaluated, our testers favor the Sylvania Headlight Restoration Kit ($21) and 3M Headlight Lens Restoration System 29008 ($15).

Learn more about headlight restoration kits.

They may be difficult to gift wrap, but a new set of all-season or winter tires can improve a car's ride, safety, and traction. Some can even aid fuel economy. When sorting through all the choices, look for tires that do well in our tests for braking, handling, resistance to hydroplaning, and winter traction, if applicable. Let tread wear, ride comfort, noise, and rolling resistance be tiebreakers. Our comparative tread-life tests demonstrate that a manufacturer's warranty doesn't always reflect how a tire will wear. In other words, focus on test results, not advertised claims. For traditional all-season tires, top performers include the Michelin Defender and Continental ProContact EcoPlus. If you own a newer car, performance all-season tires are a popular fitment with top performers including the Michelin Primacy MXV4 and Continental PureContact. For true winter tires, standouts include the Michelin X-Ice Xi3 and Xi2, and Hankook i*cept evo. Be sure to look at the appropriate category and speed rating when shopping.

See our tire buying guide and ratings.

Tire pressure gauges
Keeping your car tires properly inflated is an easy maintenance chore that's vital to car safety, as well as a contributing factor to fuel economy. The good news is that a simple, affordable tire-pressure gauge and a monthly check can keep the tires in top condition. We have tested stick, digital, and dial gauges. Sticks may be the most practical, as they are low cost and readily fit in a glove box. Digitals require batteries but are easy to read. Dial-types can be expensive and more balky to store, although not necessarily more accurate. For sticks, our testers favor the Gorilla Automotive TG1 and Slime 2005-A, each readily available for $7 or less.

See our tire pressure gauge buying advice and ratings.

Wheel cleaners
Wheels have become like jewelry on a car, adding stylish, bright highlights at the corners--so long as they are kept clean. Removing brake dust and other grime can enhance the appearance, as well as protect the wheel from the corrosion, pitting, and permanent damage that road salt can cause. We recently tested five spray-on, hose-off cleaners to see if they live up to the promise. In the end, the best results required some elbow grease. Our testers found Eagle One A2Z All Wheel & Tire Cleaner to be the most effective, but there were more affordable alternatives.

Learn more about wheel cleaners.

Wiper blades
It's easy to forget that wipers are a safety feature--until you end up driving in heavy rain or snow, or are blinded by glare. An unclean or obscured windshield is a true hazard. Rather than look to replacement blades, consider a whole blade assembly for installation ease. All wiper blades are marketed with great promise, and it can be difficult to sort through the claims and hyperbole. In our testing, we have found that some of the best blades are among the least expensive, including the ANCO 31 Series and Michelin RainForce.

See our wiper blade buying advice and ratings.

And remember, car batteries make great stocking stuffers, so long as the mantle is sturdy.

More from Consumer Reports:
2013 New Car Preview
Best & worst used cars
Complete Ratings for 200 cars and trucks

Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on Yahoo!. Copyright © 2007-2012 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction, in whole or in part, without written permission.