Car batteries aren't one size fits all
When looking at the engine
in your car, truck or SUV, it can be easy to overlook the plain little box that
sits quietly in the corner: your car's battery. Car batteries generally last
between three and eight years, so unless you plan on buying a new car every
year or two, chances are you will need to buy a new battery at some point.
There are more than a
dozen car battery brands, but three manufacturers make almost all of them:
Johnson Controls (DieHard, EverStart, Interstate and Duralast batteries), Exide (Exide, Orbital and Marathon
batteries) and East Penn (Deka batteries).
Unfortunately, you can't
just shop by brand to find the best car battery. In ConsumerReports.org's latest car battery test, every chart-topping brand had some mediocre batteries,
too. Brands periodically switch manufacturers, so top-rated brands and models
change from year to year. Shopping by car battery prices isn't much help,
either. In expert testing, it's not unheard of to find a $90 car battery that beats
rivals costing twice as much.
Types of Car Batteries
Passenger Car Batteries
A good passenger car battery should start right up -- year after year -- whether it's blisteringly hot or blustery cold outside. It should also have plenty of juice to spare (for those times when you accidentally leave your lights on).High Performance Batteries
High-performance batteries are pricey, but are worth it for heavy-duty use. You might want such a battery if you have a custom sound system or other accessories (like winches) that draw a lot of power, or if your kids like to watch your car's DVD system while the engine is off. Cheap Car Batteries
While performance might be a step or two behind -- or not, according to some tests -- if your car isn't loaded down with gear, and cost is an important consideration, a cheap car battery is very much worth considering. Buy from a reputable dealer, and make note of user feedback regarding performance and value, and some surprisingly inexpensive batteries could do the trick.
Batteries are further
broken down by the climates where their use is most appropriate:
car batteries -- often
labeled "South" or "S" -- are designed to endure
scorching heat that could fry a car battery that's not designed to handle
car batteries -- often
labeled "North" or "N" -- have higher cold-cranking amps
(CCA). But don't just go by the battery's claimed CCA: In ConsumerReports.org's cold-cranking test, some
batteries with modest CCA ratings beat the ones with sky-high CCA claims.
Some of the best cold-weather car batteries don't even identify themselves
as a "North" model.
Finding The Best Car Batteries
To find the top car batteries, we researched how each performs,
its dependability, and how much bang you get for the buck. To learn all that we
looked to what experts say, and ConsumerReports.org is by far the best source
for professional car battery reviews. Editors stress-test dozens of car
batteries to judge their performance in three areas: cold cranking, heat
endurance and reserve capacity (the oops-I-left-my-lights-on test). Experts at
CarsDirect.com and Autos.com recommend their favorite battery brands, as well. Owner
reviews are another essential piece of the puzzle, especially for figuring out
which car batteries truly last under real-world conditions. We found hundreds
of owner reviews at AdvanceAutoParts.com, and Amazon.com, with smaller numbers
at Walmart.com (which sells EverStart batteries), AutoZone.com and Sears.com
(home of DieHard batteries). Additionally, we found feedback from owners and
car enthusiasts in discussion threads at ConsumerPete.com and CarTalk.com
Best all-purpose car batteries
Impeccable in most ways,
the DieHard Gold 50865 (Est. $145) scores highly in ConsumerReport.org's test comparing 64 car batteries. It gets the highest scores in every category:
reserve capacity, or how long it will run with the engine off, such as if you
accidentally leave your lights on; hot-climate endurance; and cold-cranking
performance at 0 degrees Fahrenheit. T
With 140 minutes of
reserve capacity, the DieHard Gold 50865 will keep your lights and other
electronics running even when the vehicle is off. More pluses: a sturdy design
and a strong warranty. If your DieHard Gold battery fails to hold a charge
within three years (as determined by Sears' testing), Sears will replace it.
One drawback: Sears
charges an extra "nominal fee" for battery installation, according to
Sears.com, which typically ranges between $10 and $20 but may vary depending on
how easy your battery is to access. Plenty of other stores -- including Walmart,
auto-parts chains and some garages -- will install your battery for free if you
buy it from them.
The top-rated DieHard Gold
50865 is a "North" battery, designed to perform particularly well in
cold climates. It and other DieHard Gold models are standard lead-acid
batteries. Sears also offers the DieHard Advanced Gold series. These are an
absorbed glass mat battery (AGM), which typically "better stand up to
repeated draining and recharging cycles than standard batteries,"
ConsumerReports.org says. This type of battery is a good choice for vehicle
owners who don't use their vehicle for long periods of time, which can cause a
battery to lose its charge.
However, in testing, it is
not unusual to see batteries in the Gold series outperform those in the
Advanced Gold series. A case in point is the DieHard Advanced Gold 50765 (Est. $175). It scores just a few
points lower than the 50865, though still well enough to earn Excellent scores
across the board and Recommended status. The key difference is that this is a
"South" battery, with a lower cold cranking amp rating (775 CCA vs
880 CCA for the 50865). Still, ConsumerReports.org
notes that the 50765 is "Good for both cold and temperate climates "
Different cars take
different size batteries, of course. The best-reviewed version of the DieHard
Gold is a Group 65 size that fits many large cars, trucks and SUVs by Ford and
Mercury. A few other DieHard Gold and DieHard Advanced Gold batteries do nearly
as well in tests, including the Group 34 DieHard Advanced Gold 50734 (Est. $160), Group 24F DieHard Gold 50823 (Est. $125), Group 35 DieHard Gold 50835 (Est. $130), and Group 24 DieHard Gold 50923 (Est. $130). But be careful: A few smaller Group 48 versions of
this battery land at or near the bottom of the pack in expert testing, earning
lower scores for hot-climate endurance or cold cranking amps performance.
The Optima YellowTop D35 (Est. $190) doesn't appear in expert tests, but it's
a favorite of car owners. Between Amazon.com and the Advance Auto Parts
website, the Optima YellowTop D35 earns a rating of
about 4.4 stars (out of a possible 5) in nearly 350 reviews overall. A similar
model, the Optima D34/78 (Est. $190), is included in ConsumerReports.org's roundup, landing near the top of the
pack in the Group 34, 78 and 34/78 category. The Optima D34/78 earns excellent
scores for hot-climate endurance and cold cranking performance (a claimed 750 CCA)
and a very good score for reserve capacity.
The Optima YellowTop is an AGM battery and is covered by a three-year
warranty. We did see complaints that Optima previously failed to honor
warranties of batteries purchased online, but as some reviewers note,
Amazon.com is now an authorized retailer, so warranties for Optima batteries
purchased there are honored.
Both the DieHard and Optima YellowTop batteries are marketed as "deep cycle" batteries (capable of being
drained and recharged, over and over). The YellowTop is also marketed as a "dual-purpose" battery, meaning that in
addition to its deep-cycling capability, it also has the cranking power
necessary to power accessory-loaded vehicles. Optima even recommends its YellowTop batteries to run tractors and forklifts. It's
also perfect for off-roading, experts say, because instead of fragile plates
inside, the Optima battery has sturdy spiral tubes that stand up to constant
vibration. However, the DieHard Gold 50865 boasts a higher CCA rating (at 660
CCA, the rating for the D35 is also lower than that of the D34/78) , and the YellowTop also has a
shorter reserve capacity of 100 minutes.
We give the DieHard Gold
50865 a slight nod as our Best Reviewed selection for typical passenger cars thanks
to its sterling performance in expert tests, but the Optima YellowTop D35 is very much worth considering. The bottom line is that both batteries are
good choices for the average vehicle: Either battery will start your car
promptly, and won't conk out terribly soon if you forget to turn off the
Costco batteries come through for heavy-duty use
Costco's Kirkland car
batteries were once the darling of experts and car owners -- the best bargain
battery around, boasting a super-long life and an equally super warranty. But
Costco has quit selling them.
have replaced the Kirkland branded car batteries at your local Costco,"
ConsumerPete.com reports. Car owners all over the Internet confirm (and lament)
the change. However, while Interstate batteries are pricier than the late
Kirkland batteries (both made by Johnson Controls), Interstate batteries are
emerging as a leader among automotive batteries designed for heavy-duty use.
One area where there
definitely is a difference is in the warranty. Kirkland car batteries carried a
36-month free replacement warranty, with a prorated warranty up to 100 months
(you'd get a percentage of the purchase price back if the battery failed during
that time). But Costco's Interstate car batteries carry a flat 48-month
replacement warranty, according to the Interstate website.
Buying your battery from
Costco has its tradeoffs: Membership costs $55 per year, and Costco doesn't
install car batteries. Based on their performance in expert testing, however,
the added cost and inconvenience might be worthwhile if you need a
high-performance battery. For those that are not Costco members, you can also
buy Interstate batteries from local authorized dealers, though the
specifications -- and value -- might be different.
batteries, the Interstate MT7-34 (Est. $260) lands near the top of the Group 34, 78
& 34/78 category in ConsumerReports.org's exhaustive testing. Editors give this absorbed glass mat car battery excellent
scores for life and reserve capacity and a very good score for its cold
cranking. The MT7-34 has 1,000 cranking amps and 800 cold cranking amps, 12
volts, Common Code A terminals, and a reserve capacity of 125 minutes.
The Interstate MT7-34
isn't the only car battery from Interstate that does well in head-to-head
testing. The Interstate MT7-65 (Est. $275)
lands on top in the Group 65 category, earning an excellent rating for life, a
very good rating for reserve capacity, and an excellent rating for its cold
cranking amps performance. The Interstate MT7-78 (Est. $270)
is also a solid contender in the same category, earning a slightly lower score
for its cold cranking amps performance. The MT7-65 is rated at 770 cold
cranking amps, while the MT7-78 has 800.
Interstate batteries are
praised in reviews for their ample cold cranking amps, meaning that Interstate
car batteries will start your vehicle reliably without repeating cranking in
cold temperatures. The 48-month warranty, while shorter than Costco's former
Kirkland batteries, is among the longest car battery warranties available.
Plus, Interstate batteries earn high marks for longevity in reviews, so you
won't need to replace your vehicle's battery as often.