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. Mechanics on Angie's List say car batteries generally last between three and six 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, and most of them are sold exclusively at certain
retail chains. For instance, Autocraft batteries are available only at Advance
Auto Parts stores, Bosch at Pep Boys, DieHard batteries at Sears and Kmart,
Duralast at AutoZone, and EverStart at Walmart.
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. One reason is that brands may use different manufacturers for different lines
and even sizes. On top of that, brands periodically switch manufacturers, so
top-rated brands and models change from year to year. You can find more
information on who, currently, makes which battery at Bill Darden's excellent BatteryFAQ.org website.
Types of Car Batteries
Passenger Car Batteries
The most basic car batteries are for starting your car only. Sometimes labeled as SLI batteries (for "starting, lights, ignition"), these batteries can produce a quick burst of power to get your engine started, but after that they need to be recharged by your car's alternator. A good SLI battery should start right up -- year after year -- whether it's blisteringly hot or blustery cold outside. It should also have enough juice to spare for those times when you accidentally leave your lights on.
Unlike SLI batteries, deep-cycle batteries can deliver a steady current over a long period. You can discharge them and recharge them repeatedly without damaging them or shortening their lifespan. This makes deep-cycle batteries a good choice 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. However, it's important to make sure you choose a deep-cycle battery that also has enough juice (measured in CCA, for "cold-cranking amps") to start your engine. Batteries that can do both are sometimes labeled as dual-purpose batteries.
Cheap Car Batteries
In general, cheaper car batteries (priced at $110 or less) tend to fall a step or two behind pricier choices in professional tests. However, many of them are still quite acceptable performers. If cost is important to you, and if your car isn't loaded down with gear, one of these cheap car batteries could meet your needs just fine. Just take care to buy from a reputable dealer, and pay attention to user feedback regarding performance and value.
Size matters … and so does climate
In addition to the basic
categories noted above, batteries are also sorted by size. There are nine size
groups: 65, 75, 24/24F, 34/78, 35, 51R, 47 (H5), 48 (H6), and 49 (H8). Each one
of these battery sizes fits different car makes and models. Thus, when you shop
for a car battery, you can't just look for the one with the best overall
rating; you have to choose one that's sized to fit your specific vehicle.
On top of that, some batteries
are rated for use in a particular climate. Hot-weather car batteries -- often
labeled "South" or "S" -- are designed to survive longer in
high temperatures. By contrast, cold-weather car batteries -- often labeled "North"
or "N" -- have higher CCA ratings, enabling them to start more easily
in cold temperatures.
Finding The Best Car Batteries
"Beware: The Best and Worst Replacement Car Batteries Can Be From the Same Brand"
When it comes to car batteries, there isn't a ton of reputable,
comparative testing available. However, ConsumerReports.org is an exception. Editors
there stress-test dozens of car batteries to judge their performance in three
areas: cold cranking, heat endurance, and reserve capacity (the
To fill in the rest of the picture, we then looked to
owner-written reviews to figure out how well batteries perform in real-world
use and how well they hold up over time. Retail sites such as
AdvanceAutoParts.com, Amazon.com, Sears.com, and PepBoys.com offer dozens or
even hundreds of reviews on their most popular battery brands. We also checked
out feedback from owners and car enthusiasts about their favorite brands in
discussion threads, such as those at CarTalk.com. Then we put it all together
to find the batteries that offer the best combination of performance,
reliability, and bang for your buck.