Paint protection film (PPF for short) is an interesting product. I’ve ultimately come to the conclusion that it isn’t a good choice except in certain circumstances. It’s an amazing product though and it’s very capable but it has some flaws from my experience. I’ll share my first-hand experiences and results of my research trying to answer the important questions.
Originally developed for the military by 3M, it was used to protect the leading edge of helicopter blades from getting damaged so quickly from debris and shrapnel. 3M later made alterations to commercialize it for use in the automotive industry in addition to several others.
The film is very similar to vinyl bumper sticker material but it’s much thicker and able to withstand serious punishment while being essentially perfectly clear and almost completely unnoticeable. It isn’t vinyl but a thermoplastic urethane. It even has some self-healing properties. It really is an amazing product.
Because of how effective it is it has become hugely popular for protecting car are truck paint and for good reason. Some people even go to the extreme of wrapping their entire vehicle. Covering every inch of painted surface. This is not inexpensive to do though.
Most people apply it to portions of their front bumper cover, front portion of their hood, headlights, and mirror housings. This is much more affordable and makes sense given that they are the most likely areas to be damaged by flying rocks and debris.
I personally had it installed on the front portion of my hood and front bumper cover as well as my mirror housings. I’m sure it protected me from many a rock chip but all was not perfect. I had a few gripes with it that is like to share.
I had the clear bra applied to my silver 2001 Audi S4. It was reasonably unnoticeable with the exception of a fine line across my hood where the paint protection film stopped.
I want to concerned about the fine line. The only way to eliminate it would be to wrap the entire good and I didn’t have the funds to make that happen. It seemed like a reasonable compromise.
Over time this faint fine line became more prominent as sorry and road grime began to collect on the adhesive edge. Since my car was a very light color it stood out more than it would have on a dark colored car or truck.
Also, as time progressed, the clear bra began to yellow. Again, having a light colored car made this noticeable when it likely wouldn’t have been able to be detected on a much darker color.
Later I had an issue where a rock had hit the clear bra and damaged it a bit. I was lucky that it had done so on a very small piece. The installers had put a couple of small patches of paint protection film on the front corner of each quarter panel and this is what had gotten damaged.
Instead of leaving the damaged clear bra which looked similar to a rock chip I decided to peel it off. Turns out that the adhesive seemed to have eaten into the clear coat and the clear began to pull away as I peeled it off. I was livid.
In fairness I’m not a trained installer and not qualified to uninstall PPF. it’s possible that a heat gun or aggressive remover is required to pretext the finish during removal. This problem may have been unique to the brand of paint protection film that was applied to my car. I can’t be sure. At this point I had all of the film removed and the entire front end of the car repainted.
I obviously had a bad experience personally but I don’t think you should judge whether paint protection film is right or wrong for you and your car or truck solely based on my personal experience.
Recently my son got a used white Volkswagen Jetta. It is in great condition and happened to have clear bra already installed on it. It was installed similar to how it was installed on my S4. Front bumper cover, front portion of the hood, and rear view mirror housings.
My thinking had been that in the 15 or so years that has passed since I had my clear bra installed and his that some of these problems had been sorted out. Mine was installed in the early 2000’s and his probably when the car was new or just after which would be around 2013-2015. Turns out that isn’t the case.
Being a solid white car, it really shows the yellowing that has occurred in the years it has been on the car. It didn’t jump out at you to be fair. But it is quite noticable. Less so in the picture I’ve included but you can still see clearly what I’m referring to.
Another issue I noticed is at a spot where a rock hit the film. It struck right at the leading edge of the film on the hood. It appears that it worked and kept the Rick from coping the paint but I noticed another problem. It appears not just the clear but the paint later as well is lifting along where the protection film was applied.
It hasn’t lifted much but there is a crack in the finish right where the edge of the film was. I don’t see how the rock that tore away some of the clear bra could have done this unless the adhesive on the film had not caused some damage first.
We don’t know who installed the film or who the manufacturer is but it doesn’t fill me with confidence that any improvements have been made in all these years.
Many manufactures ship their cars from the factory with paint protection film installed in certain areas to reduce potential damage. Porsche is known for installing it in front of the rear wheel wells that flare out in the 911 where chips are likely to occur.
It’s possible that the paint protection film used by Porsche and other manufacturers is different and better than that used on my Audi S4 and the Jetta. It’s also possible it’s the exact same. I don’t know.
Porsche isn’t the only manufacturer to install paint protection film at the factory on new vehicles. Almost every manufacturer installs it in some way. It’s very common to find on bodywork just in front of the rear wheels. Volkswagen and many other manufacturers will install it behind door handles to protect from fingernail scratches.
I’m sure that PPF will hold up very well for people over the 5 years of a manufacturer’s warranty. It will probably still yellow over time and may even damage the clear coat if left on long enough. It isn’t going to last for the lifetime of the vehicle. It has a lifespan of only a few years on a car that regularly spends extended time outside in the direct sun and elements.
I honestly don’t think clear bra is all bad. I believe on dark colored cars it is probably a very good option if you’re a frequent highway driver or any other situation that will expose you to unusually high number of rock chips.
Even light colored cars in this situation would benefit. You may experience some yellowing but this can be made less obvious by having entire panels wrapped instead of a portion of a panel. This will also eliminate dirt and road grime from being seen on any prominently exposed seams as they will be hidden from view.
If you plan on having your entire vehicle wrapped you can expect to pay a several thousand dollars at least. If you have a large truck or SUV you can expect to pay significantly more. If you’re just having the front end wrapped it’ll be a lot more manageable. It still won’t be cheap though. You can expect a partial front end application to begin to approach a thousand dollars.
Be sure your installer wraps the film around the edges of all panels. Precut products designed to fit a particular car typically don’t wrap around the edges of panels. You can see what I mean in the detail pics of the Jetta. The film is cut to fit but comes right to the edge and leaves a small gap. Dirt and road grime can easily collect here. Find an installer that hand-cuts the PPF.
Ask if there are any vehicles that have had film installed for an extended period of time you can see. Look for peeling on edges. This is what will separate a good installer from a great installer. If edges have been wrapped over the seams will be hidden but it can be difficult to get the film to stick well in this situation.
Most car bra films don’t really have much special care requirements. Some film manufacturers sell products to care for the film but not all do. When I purchased clear bra for my car I was told that I could basically just wax it like I wound the paint on the car.
I get the impression that the products some manufacturers sell to care for paint protection film is just a wax or sealant that isn’t much different than what you would normally apply to your car. I can’t confirm this so be sure and follow all manufacturer suggestions.
PPF doesn’t last forever. Best case scenario is ten years according to my research. Typical lifespan seems like 5-7 years it’s more realistic also based on my research. Here’s a pic I took of PPF on an older Hyundai I saw in a parking lot while in the middle of writing this article. I don’t know the age of the car but the film placed in front of the rear wheel looks awful. Of course this is an area that is going to receive a lot of abuse. I would guess this car was close to the 20 year old range. It isn’t surprising given the location and age how bad it looks.
Unfortunately, the only real alternative to PPF is dealing with rock chips. You can get your car ceramic coated which will help prevent fine scratches but it will not do anything against a stone chip.
The route I’ve chosen to go is to deal with rock chips as they happen. This isn’t the best choice for everyone. The good news is that it’s become easier to deal with rock chips but it still isn’t simple. My reasons are cost and aesthetics. I also plan to keep my current car for an extended period of time so I know I’d have to deal with replacing the clear bra at some point.
A good friend of mine decided that the route he wanted to go with his Porsche 911 Turbo was to just wait until the damage was bad enough that he felt getting the front end repainted was worthwhile. This is not inexpensive but probably not much more than the paint protection film itself. Another concern I have with this route is getting a proper job done. My experience with having had cars repainted is that the quality won’t be nearly as good as the factory paint. No one will care for my car as well as I would. If you consider this option plan on doing a lot of research to find a good paint shop.
When I was in college I worked at a couple banner and sign shops. We had a vinyl cutter that would cut out text and graphics that we would apply to the signs and banners. We used a spray bottle with a mixture of water and a little soap to keep the vinyl from sticking until we had it placed exactly. This is the same way that paint protection film is applied. Applying graphics was a pretty simple task at my sign job. The only additional complication for a car is surfaces that are very curved. To deal with more extreme bends and curves a heat gun is used to soften the film so it can be stretched and fit.
Installation is the bulk of the expense of paint protection film. Doing it yourself will save you a huge amount. Unless you’re attempting to install particularly large sections it is reasonable to give it a shot yourself. The paint protection film itself is very reasonably priced. All you need in addition to the film is a vinyl application squeegee, razor blade, and a spray bottle with water and a little baby shampoo soap. You’ll only need a heat gun if you have difficult bends and curves you need to wrap.
You can likely find precut kits for your car or truck that’ll be easier to install but you will have a little fine line around every edge. I prefer having the film wrapped over the edges of all panels personally but that’ll be a more challenging install. If you’re not concerned about the fine lines the precut kits are the way to go.
Prepping the surface to apply the wrap to is going to be important. It needs to be completely cleaned and not have any wax or contaminants on it. You will probably want to clean the surface with a mixture of isopropyl alcohol and water. You’ll also want to find a garage to work in if you don’t have one available. This will remove wind from the equation and also help protect from flying debris that could stick to the freshly cleaned paint surface or the adhesive backing of the paint protection film.
Spend a little time on YouTube watching how to install clear bra and see if it’s something you think you’d be willing to try installing yourself. After watching a few videos you should get a feel as to whether it is within your ability to tackle. If you have larger sections, like a hood, that you want to wrap you may need to find a friend to help you out.
To wrap up, paint protection film is an amazing product that works really well but has some serious downsides. For me, the biggest downside is the expense to have it installed combined with the fact that it will eventually need to be replaced at approximately 5 years. Also, if a rock tears the film that entire piece of film will need to be replaced. If that piece of film happens to be on your hood then you’re looking at removal and re-wrap of a very large panel.
My brother-in-law does very well for himself. He tends to buy cars, modify them, and then sell them at about 2-3 per year. Not too long ago he took me for a ride in a heavily modified Mercedes Benz AMG sedan. Wicked fast and beautiful car. He had it completely wrapped in paint protection film. A rock had kicked up and torn the film on the front passenger door. The finish was not harmed so the PPF worked, but at the expense of having to re-wrap the entire passenger door.
I suggest considering doing a DIY PPF install if you’re up to the challenge. You’ll save a tremendous amount of money. The majority of the cost of clear bra installs is the labor and not the product.
The other option I suggest is just touching up rock chips as you go and repainting of or when it’s needed.
You may be someone that needs more protection due to your commute or other factors. If this is you then PPF may be the best solution for you. Good luck!