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What’s the Best Car Upholstery Cleaning Machine for You?

best car upholstery cleaning machine

Looking to get a car upholstery cleaning machine, but overwhelmed by all the options? We explain the difference between steam cleaners and extractors, and help you decide on the best car upholstery cleaning machine type for your needs.

Steam cleaning is an excellent way of removing years of built-up dirt, grime, and debris. The high temperatures of the steam, allow it to penetrate deep into the pores of the material and force out dirt and grime that is hidden deep within. Countless automotive detailing shops rely on steam extractors for the fabric, and steam cleaners for the plastic, leather, and vinyl surfaces.

A quick online search for an upholstery cleaner machine for cars will turn up hundreds of models, sporting the words ‘steam extractor’ or ‘steam cleaner’. You’d be forgiven for wondering are they the same or different, and how does the $100 option differ from the $1,000 one? Where do you even start?

In this article, firstly we explain the difference between steam extractors and steam cleaners, and then explain what features to look for when choosing a machine for your own car upholstery cleaning needs. After reading this article, you should be well equipped with the knowledge to get the best type for you.

Types of Upholstery Cleaner Machine for Cars

The two types of upholstery cleaner machines for cars that you will encounter are steam cleaners and extractors.

Steam or hot water extractors are what you think of when you think of a carpet steamer. They usually have a smaller in-line boiler that generally does not heat the water to a high enough level to create “steam”. They spray the hot water onto the fabric/carpet then have a built in wet/dry vacuum that sucks most of the moisture and grime off the surface. This leaves the upholstery/carpet feeling wet for several hours as the remaining moisture evaporates.

Steam cleaners look more like a high pressure washer and have a similar looking nozzle. But rather than spraying water, they spray high-temperature steam. These generally have a boiler tank which superheats the water before it is sprayed. The spray from these cleaners is almost completely steam, with minute amounts of moisture. Steam cleaners do not have a vacuum built into them and you will need to wipe the surfaces after spraying them. Detailers use a special brush to scrub the surface and sweep away debris that is brought to the surface or broken free by the steam.


Hot water extractors (also known as extractors or steam extractors) are highly effective at removing dirt and grime from just about any surface within a car. Most traditional extractors make use of an in-line heating element and a sprayer head that ejects the high-temperature vapors as a finely dispersed mist. Because of the higher temperatures, the limited levels of water used by a steam extractor also evaporate fairly quickly.

TIP AN extractor is the best car upholstery cleaning machine for fabric, but is unsuitable for leather and hard surfaces.

Hot water extractors are one of the most commonly used deep cleaning tools in an automotive detailing shop. They feature a very straightforward design that is easy to use and includes wet vacuuming capabilities. The streamlined nozzles are capable of fitting into tight spaces, which allows them to clean those hard-to-reach places.

The extractor works by spraying the fabric with a fine mist of high-temperature water which helps to loosen up any stuck or caked-on dirt or grime. The extractor includes a vacuum system that can suck up the water along with the dirt and grime. For most car upholstery, it only takes a few passes to restore the fabric to a like-new condition.


  • Perfect for Dirty Chores
  • Great for Cleaning Carpet
  • Can Loosen up Caked-On Dirt and Grime
  • Rinse the Fabric of Any Buildup
  • Fast and Effective
  • Does Not Require A Lot of Skill to Use


  • It Takes Time to Dry the Fabric
  • Mold or Mildew Can Grow in Hot Climates
  • Interior Glass Can Condense in Cold Climates
  • Limited to Fabric Surfaces Only

For a video demonstration of an extractor in action, see this clip Deep Cleaning Carpet on YouTube.

Steam Cleaners

Unlike extractors, steam cleaners can be used on just about any surface both inside and outside of the car. Steam cleaners use a nozzle sprayer which allows the user to inject the high-temperature steam onto just about any hard or soft surface. The fine vapors of the cleaner can draw out dirt and grime embedded deep below the surface.

TIP A steam cleaner is the best car upholstery cleaning machine for leather, vinyl and carpet.

Steam cleaners generally have their own built-in boilers, and while the extractors do get hot, they do not get anywhere near as hot as a steam cleaner. Most detailers will use steam cleaners (aka steamers) to loosen up caked-on dirt and grime from the fine nooks and crannies in the car. They can even remove that sticky substance from the bottom of your cup holders.

When used in conjunction with a hand-cleaning brush, steam cleaners can rejuvenate just about any surface within a car. They can be used on glass, leather, vinyl, and a wide variety of plastic trim. Special precautions must be taken when using a steam cleaner, because the temperatures may be too much for more sensitive vinyl and plastics.


  • Great for Cleaning Hard Surfaces
  • Can Clean Painted Surfaces
  • Works on Leather, Glass, Carpet, and Plastics
  • Removes Particles from the Ventilation System
  • Great for Cleaning Out Cupholders
  • Can Be Used on Door Hardware
  • The Steam Dries Quickly
  • Kills 99.99% of Germs


  • Some Steamers Do Not Get Hot Enough
  • Steamers Tend to Lose Pressure Quickly
  • Many Steamers Have Low-Water Capacities
  • Low-Pressure Steamers Are Ineffective
  • Limited Additional Accessories Available

For a video demonstration of a steam cleaner in action, see How to Use a Steam Cleaner to Clean Your Car Interior on You Tube.

What is the best car upholstery cleaning machine for you?

Both steam cleaners and extractors play an important role in automotive detailing. Unless the interior of your car is made entirely out of fabric, you will need to invest in both.

While extractors are perfect for working with fabric surfaces such as carpets, seats, rear dash, and roof liners, they are ineffective on the harder surfaces. Steam cleaners on the other hand are the right choice for cleaning vinyl, leather, plastic, and glass.

When used together, both steam cleaners and steam extractors can help rejuvenate just about any vehicle’s interior and exterior. Most detailers will start the cleaning process by vacuuming out the interior of the vehicle to reduce the number of loose dirt particles that can contaminate the process. From there, steam extractors are used to clean the floor carpeting, rear dash, roof liner, as well as any fabric upholstery.

Once the fabric upholstery has had ample time to dry, detailers will then use a steam cleaner to clean off all of the vinyl, leather, plastic, and glass surfaces within the car. They will also use a detailer brush to help sweep away any dirt or grime that is brought to the surface, especially on the armrests.

Quality and Capability

All too often, people buy the cheapest steam cleaners and extractors that they can find. And while this may seem like an excellent way to select a product, you only get what you pay for. Most of the lower-end units do not hold very much water and they generally do not get anywhere near hot enough to clean most interior surfaces properly. And, when something breaks on a low-end unit, it is usually cheaper to simply throw the unit away rather than attempt to repair it.

To ensure that you get the best results every small time, it’s important to take the time to figure out just how you plan on using the steam cleaning machines, and how much you are willing to spend on them. After all, your goal is to get the highest quality product for the lowest price possible. Make sure that the unit you are purchasing is not just durable, but also easy to repair. Take your time to ensure that the option you select can get hot enough, and hold enough water to clean your car’s entire interior.

Once you have figured out how you intend on using your upholstery cleaning machine, you can begin to look at features such as hose length, load capacity, power ratings, and the wide assortment of attachments that will help you clean more effectively. These features are personal, depending on your own needs, for example:

  • Hose length: Think about where you will park your car to clean it, and where you will place the machine. Will the machine be right next to you, or does the hose need a bit of extra length? Do you have a small hatchback where the distance from front to back is short, or do you have a large camper or truck with a large area of upholstery to clean?
  • Water capacity: How much upholstery cleaning are you doing at one time? Will you be cleaning a large area and need a large capacity of water? How close is the water tap to your car cleaning area if you need to refill?
  • Attachments: What sort of attachments will you realistically use? Having a large assortment may seem attractive, but do you really need them all?
  • Repairs: Can the device be pulled apart and repaired, or is it glued together and need to be thrown away if it breaks? Is it possible to buy spare parts? Does it have a warranty? If you’re environmentally conscious, you may prefer the repairable option to avoid throwing yet more junk in landfill.

While purchasing two machines can be a fairly large investment for personal use, when you make a well-informed decision your new steam cleaner and extractor can last you for years to come.

Cost of an upholstery cleaner machine for cars

Cost is very important when it comes to the decision-making process. While there are a wide array of different steam cleaners and extractors available on the market today, it’s important to always weigh the cost of the device with its quality and capabilities. The cheapest upholstery cleaning machines are for personal use only and have extremely limited capabilities. These are followed by commercial-grade units which are commonly found in offices, restaurants, and hotels. The most expensive units available on the market today, are the multipurpose units that are used by professionals in the janitorial and automotive detailing services across the country.

Cost of Car Upholstery Cleaners for Personal Use

The cheapest units available on the market today are for personal use only. They are generally assembled using cheaper components, as they are not designed to run for long periods of time. They weigh less, which makes them easier for most people to use. However, because the units are smaller, they are unable to hold as much water and also cannot heat up as fast as the higher-quality commercial or multipurpose units can.

The average personal use steam cleaner or extractor can operate for no more than 30 to 40 minutes before you need to refill the water. They also tend to feature smaller boilers, which do not get hot enough for most work. The cheapest units start off at around $40, but units with the highest capacity and temperature ratings can cost as much as $400.

Cost of Car Upholstery Cleaners for Commercial Use

The next grade up from personal use, is commercial grade. These units are much more capable than personal devices and can be used for hours on end without having to refill the water. Because they are generally larger, they are not as easy to transport or store as a personal unit. However, they are great for cleaning not only cars but just about any surface within a home or office.

While low-end personal units start off at around $40, the lower-end commercial-grade units will start at around $1000. As with most things, you always get what you pay for. Not only can these larger units provide you with higher pressure levels, but they also take less time to heat up, have higher water capacities, and can used all day long.

Multi-Purpose units are available, but Expensive

At this point, you may be wondering if there are any car upholstery cleaning machines that combine the features of both a steam extractor and steam cleaner. Good question, and the answer is yes, but only for commercial use at the time of writing.

The highest-grade steam cleaners and steam extractors available on the market today, are known as multipurpose units. These car upholstery cleaning machines are capable of operating at more than 295 PSI. You’ll generally find multipurpose steam cleaners and extractors at car detailing shops, restaurants, and hotels.

Low-end multipurpose units will start at around $6000, but can easily cost well over $10,000. They are the workhorses of the industry and are designed to run consistently, all day long. They are extremely durable, and as such, can last years with minimal regular maintenance. When something does go wrong, they are usually covered under extensive warranties, and replacement components and parts can be easily sourced.

Final thoughts on choosing the best car upholstery cleaning machine

Hopefully by now, you should have a clear idea of the type of car upholstery cleaner machine best suited to your vehicle, cleaning frequency, location and needs.

Perhaps it is not the advice you were hoping to hear, but for the best cleaning solution, both a steam extractor and steam cleaner is required. However, if you are on a tight budget, then here are some other solutions that don’t require buying both:

For fabric upholstery, choose a steam extractor

If your car is made up of fabric upholstery as many of them are, then opt for a steam extractor. The steam extractor is designed to clean fabric car upholstery, but cannot clean other surfaces. In a car, it is the upholstery, however, that is the most difficult to clean. The hard surfaces can be cleaned by hand using detergent and warm water, as you have probably been doing already, even though a steam cleaner can speed this up. Just double-check the model of extractor to make sure it is capable of cleaning the fabric carpet in your car, too.

For leather or vinyl upholstery, choose a steam cleaner

If your car interior upholstery is leather or vinyl, then go for a steam cleaner. A steam cleaner is more versatile, and can clean leather, vinyl and hard surfaces, as well as carpet. This single device can clean your entire car interior, if you have leather or vinyl upholstery throughout. A warning if you have vinyl however, as steam cleaners can damage sensitive surfaces like some types of vinyl, in which case you may wish to continue cleaning by hand or look for a less powerful machine.

Final tips

To save money, consider how and where you will use the machine, and don’t buy any upholstery cleaning machine for cars with specifications well above your real needs. Consider the features, power and accessories, and buy a model that fulfils your actual needs. There is no need to get a commercial-grade machine, or one designed for cleaning vans and campers, if you’re just cleaning the family sedan every now and then. It is better to opt for a higher quality device from a reliable brand that guarantees a bit less, rather than a cheap piece of junk that promises everything.

Of course, the last alternative is that you simply clean your car upholstery by hand, the old fashioned way. Which, if you have an older car and aren’t worried about a perfect result, may be just what you need for the occasional freshen up. With very little cash and some elbow grease you can even remove stubborn car stains that way, too. That, or rent an extractor or steam cleaner from your local hardware store, rather than buying your own.

Happy upholstering!