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 vehicle's battery. Car batteries generally last between three and eight years, so chances are you will need to buy a new one at some point. When you're searching for a replacement battery, you'll find few expert reviews. We paired that limited professional testing with hundreds of owner comments to find out which brands offer the highest quality and dependability, two essential traits of the best car batteries.
One key factor is warranty length. That may include a free-replacement period, during which a battery is replaced at no cost if it fails, and a prorated period, during which a battery is replaced for a price based on its age). Another spec to consider is reserve capacity, which measures how long your car battery can provide power without the engine running, if you mistakenly leave your lights on, for example.
For pricing and feature comparison, most of the batteries in this report belong to group size 65, one of the most common battery sizes. The high-performance section features a group size 34, which is interchangeable with a 65 when using a wing adapter. Whether you're exchanging an old battery at the time of purchase also affects price; many auto centers tack on a core charge, which is refunded when you bring in your old battery.
There are more than a dozen car battery brands, but three companies are responsible for producing most of them. Johnson Controls, maker of brands such as DieHard, EverStart, Interstate and Duralast, holds the lion's share of the market. The other two are: Exide, which makes Exide, Orbital and Marathon batteries; and EastPenn, which builds Deka batteries.
Among all-purpose car batteries, the DieHard line, sold by Sears, ranks highly in life expectancy and reserve capacity. The DieHard Gold Series gets good feedback from professional testers and battery owners. It's also a great cold-weather performer.
Many users at MySears.com and Sears.com say their DieHard Gold batteries have lasted nine, 10 or even 12 years, surpassing their original estimated life span. As with all of the brands, there are complaints of batteries lasting fewer than three years, though there are fewer comments about DieHard Gold than about other batteries.
DieHard Gold batteries match many other brands with a 36-month free-replacement warranty, but the additional100-month prorated warranty is what makes the DieHard Gold's warranty one of the best overall. Many buyers say they are pleased to get good performance for so long: It's the "best battery in the world for the money," says one particularly jubilant owner at Sears.com. Owners also say that it is capable of running their extra accessories and performs well on hard-to-start engines.
Higher cost is the most quoted drawback to DieHard Gold batteries. As one owner says on Sears.com, "I am sure I will buy this battery again. I wish it was a bit cheaper, though." At the MySears.com community, we found a mix of gripes about pricing tempered by positive feedback saying that the quality and reliability of the DieHard Gold series of batteries makes them worth the added cost up front. The full range of DieHard batteries is available at automotive centers in Sears and Kmart stores.
Car battery prices range from $55 for a small battery with a short warranty to more than $200 for a high-performance version. Higher prices don't necessarily mean you're getting a better battery, however Two brands under $100 receive praise from both consumers and testers, and they make for solid all-around battery buys.
Coming in at the top of the budget category is the EverStart Maxx series, sold through Walmart. As with DieHard, the base EverStart model gets mixed reviews. The step-up EverStart Maxx earns superior feedback. "It's a good quality, dependable battery," says one user at Walmart.com. "I've bought these before and always had the best of luck."
Another owner says, "I bought the Wal-Mart battery, for significantly less money, with no regrets." We did see some complaints about quality issues and a short life span, and even positive reviews rate it as a 3- to 4-star battery overall. One organization that also performs professional tests of car batteries says that the EverStart Maxx's value makes it a good buy. Some of the lower ratings for the battery are at least partially driven by many users' comments about the Walmart.com website: A number of shoppers express frustration at the lack of EverStart specs posted online. We found this to indeed be the case. We can attest, however, that visiting an actual Walmart store that sold batteries (call ahead, because not every location does) eliminated the problem. The retailer we visited had a full technical manual with the battery display, listing not only the specs for every battery sold but also useful battery facts that make it easy for laymen to understand what the various ratings mean.
At the other end of the price spectrum are high-performance batteries; you might choose one of these if you have a custom sound system that draws a lot of power, or if your kids like to watch your car's DVD system while the engine is off. Many users consider Optima -- with its standout bright lids in yellow and red -- to be the leader in this premium category.
There are two Optima batteries available for personal vehicles: the RedTop starting battery and the YellowTop high-performance option. With up to 830-cold-cranking amps (CCA) and 140 minutes of reserve capacity, the YellowTop is often used for vehicles with lots of electronics. It's "fantastic for heavy drawing power accessories like 3 amps and subs," says one user at Amazon.com.
More than 100 users on Amazon.com review the Optima YellowTop, praising its storage life, extra power for add-on electrical components and ability to work even if accessories are left on without the engine running. Two features give the YellowTop an edge over other batteries in this report. First -- as with all Optima batteries -- the YellowTop is not a standard lead-acid battery but an absorbed glass mat (AGM) battery, which are more powerful and more durable. Second, it is a combination of a starting battery and a deep-cycle battery, which users say allows it provide ample power with being charged while maintaining plenty of spark to crank an engine.
If your area is subject to harsh winters and sub-freezing temperatures, then it's important to pay attention to the battery's cold-cranking amps (CCA) figure. This number refers to how many amps the battery can put out at 0 degrees Fahrenheit.
Both EverStart Maxx and DieHard Gold offer north variants of their batteries that deliver good performance, even in frigid temperatures. Among user reviews, DieHard Gold is the standout, however. With a CCA rating of 880 and a 165-minute reserve capacity, the DieHard Gold 50665 battery ranks near the top of its class. "I live in Michigan and never have a starting problem in our cold, cold winter nights," reports one user on Sears.com. A respected consumer organization recommends three northern versions of DieHard Gold batteries as the best for cold climates.
The aforementioned EverStart Maxx-65N is, again, an excellent budget-priced alternative, because its 850 CCA rating is 30 CCA off the best-reviewed DieHard Gold.
Editors at ConsumerReports.org test 62 batteries, providing information on their life expectancy, cold-cranking amps (CCA) and reserve capacity. The largest number of user reviews is at Amazon.com. We found additional reviews at MySears.com, Sears.com and Walmart.com. Mike Payne with ClassicTrucks.com and blogger David Yang each provide personal reviews on one brand of car battery.