Affordable holiday gift guide for car lovers in 2020
This story is part of Holiday Gift Guide 2020, CNET’s gift picks with expert advice, reviews and recommendations for the latest tech gifts for you and your family.
Car fanatics are never the easiest people to shop for — ask any Roadshow staffer’s family — and that’s especially true when you’re shopping at the last minute for gifts for car lovers. Let’s face it, you probably aren’t going to be buying them their favorite car (which is what they secretly want), but you can still snag something thoughtful for the petrolhead in your life that costs less than $100. Some of these gifts for car lovers are well under that even, so you won’t have to part with an entire Benjamin to show your love and you still get to give the perfect gift — great success!
The car enthusiast in your life probably already has all the practical items you’d consider gifting, so, instead, we submit this humble list of creative and practical gifts. It has everything that an automotive enthusiast would love, with a gift idea for every sort of driver or car lover. You’ll find a unique gift or two on this list, so if your auto enthusiast has very particular tastes, don’t be discouraged. Without further ado, check out our picks for the best affordable gifts for car lovers and gearheads.
Read more: Best car rental companies in 2020
What gearhead’s holiday gift list would be complete without Lego? This newer Ducati Panigale V4 R motorcycle set can be appreciated by both the young (ages 10-plus) and the young at heart. Comprised of 646 pieces and spanning over a foot long, this bike features a two-speed gearbox and functional suspension front and rear. There’s even a matching stand to make sure you don’t accidentally lay it down and give that pretty red bodywork desk rash.
— Chris Paukert
The automotive industry has many iconic bits of styling, some of which are found in the car’s interior. Think of the Volkswagen GTI’s plaid seats, for instance. WalletWerks takes some of those interior fabrics and turns them into, as its name suggests, wallets, which are super high quality. The company also has keychains and socks available to buy, so your driving experience can be even more stylish thanks to your accessories.
— Steven Ewing
Before you go and splurge on a high-end dash cam for a loved one, you might want to see if they even use one (teens, I’m looking in your direction). Enter the bizarrely named Apeman C450. At well under $50, it’s hard to look sideways at its modest 1080p resolution, 3-inch LCD display and 170-degree wide-angle lens. With features like seamless loop recording and a parking monitor for when you’re away, this basic dash cam offers peace of mind for short money.
— Chris Paukert
With winter upon us, nothing is worse than being stranded with a car that doesn’t start because of a dead battery. For some extra insurance having a portable battery jump starter like the Stanley Simple Start can prevent someone from sitting in the cold waiting for a tow truck to arrive. Instead, you can simply pop the hood and jump the car yourself. In the Simple Start’s case you can also plug the portable battery’s 12-volt male socket into the car lighter or accessory plug to charge the on-board battery, which typically takes five minutes. A green LED tells you when the car is ready to start and then you should be back on your way. Stanley says the Simple Start works for V8 engines up to 5.0 liters.
— Jon Wong
Pandemic life got you down? Yeah, me too. If you’re looking for something safe to do as the world crumbles or just need an excuse to get out of the house, consider taking a road trip. Hop in your car, point it at the horizon and drive. There’s so much to see in this great land, you could crisscross it for a lifetime and never come close to experience everything. But helping narrow things down just a bit is this handy book from National Geographic called 50 States, 5,000 Ideas. It’s chockablock with things to do, places to visit and sights to see. With hundreds of pages and innumerable pictures, it’s a great gift for your car lover friend to keep in their vehicle’s seat-back pocket for when the urge to wander strikes. Best of all, this reference is a steal at just $15.
— Craig Cole
Krazy Beaver/Craig Cole/Roadshow
Having a shovel when you’re off-roading is important and should be part of every driver’s emergency kit. It lets you dig yourself out of otherwise tricky situations, but sometimes a regular ol’ shovel won’t quite do the trick because there are roots or other bits of debris in your way while driving. That’s where the Krazy Beaver shovel comes in. Thanks to its aggressive tines, it can chew through whatever is keeping your truck stuck. I have one, and it’s offered roadside assistance on more than one occasion.
— Kyle Hyatt
The Manual Gearbox Preservation Society
Everyone likes t-shirts, and why not let the car enthusiast in your life show that they care about the dying breed that is the manual gearbox? The Manual Gearbox Preservation Society clothing comes from Curb, founded by two car designers. You like cars, your recipient likes cars, and Curb likes cars. Everyone wins.
— Sean Szymkowski
Didn’t pony up enough cash to get rump warmers in your ride but still want to keep Old Man Winter’s frosty hands off your nether regions? No problem-o, the aftermarket has you covered. This Eluto heated seat cover straps to your chair of choice and plugs into a 12-volt outlet. Aside from warming up in just one minute, it offers three temperature levels and is a cakewalk to install, basically strapping the seat. For just $30 you can keep your buttocks, thighs and back as warm as a steaming cup of cocoa this winter. What are you waiting for?
— Craig Cole
The shop light I find myself reaching for most often is actually one of the cheapest out there, this $40 folding unit from Braun (Harbor Freight’s house brand). While its length makes it difficult to throw in a toolbox, the strong magnet on the base means you can just pop it onto anything metal — like, say, the side of your toolbox. The LED light bar throws off plenty of light output for bigger jobs, while the LEDs on the tip meant I could easily inspect down in the fuel tank of my tractor. I got two hours on a charge with the LED work light bar on full blast, so it’s maybe not the best for longer jobs, but a great, affordable rechargeable work light choice for most tasks. And, if you catch it at the right time, you can get it for $35 — before the ubiquitous HF coupon!
— Tim Stevens
I’m not going to lie, I’m adding this because I really want someone to get this for me. I drive a Miata both on and off-road so there isn’t any room for a proper Dometic or ARB fridge. I’m sick of dealing with ice, so this little 4-liter mini fridge is perfect. I can keep a rotating supply of Diet Dr Pepper nice and cold and still have room left over for a well-packed lunch. Please buy it for me in fuchsia or red.
— Emme Hall
No company does car enthusiast apparel quite like Blipshift. The company’s designs are often crowd-sourced, and they can be pretty funny, too. If t-shirts aren’t your thing, Blipshift offers its designs on posters and sweatshirts, too. And don’t forget to check Blipshift’s auctions for limited-run designs.
— Steven Ewing
An illuminated check engine light on a car’s dash will drive the car guy or gal in your life batty but having an OBD2 scanner handy will expedite the repair process. Enter the Innova CarScan Advisor Model 5210. At just under $100, it performs all the essential features such as reading, deciphering and clearing check engine light trouble codes; battery tests and smog test evaluation; system diagnostics for ABS codes on most cars; and Freeze Frame data that captures what was going on when an error code was triggered. Any car enthusiast who does their own vehicle maintenance shouldn’t be without one.
— Jon Wong
A shop vacuum cleaner is extremely useful when cleaning and detailing your car or when tidying up around the garage. This 12-gallon wet/dry unit from Ridgid features a good balance of capacity, maneuverable (and storable) size and a reasonably strong five-horsepower motor that makes it a good enough car vacuum for most average cleaning jobs.
— Antuan Goodwin
The 2010 remake of Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit is one of my favorite racing games of the PS3/Xbox 360 generation, with awesome cop chases, a diverse open world and a seriously fantastic roster of cars. The game has now been remastered for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch (my favorite), with better graphics and some new features. Despite the game being 10 years old, it’s as good as ever. And if you get it on the Switch you can play while curled up in bed. What’s better than that?
— Daniel Golson
Paint clay is an incredible invention. It works to pull embedded crud out of your paint, changing it from a surface that feels rough and sandpapery to something as smooth as glass. It also helps cut down on the work you have to do when polishing a car’s finish. Heck, you can even use it on glass, too. Yeah, it’s pretty epic, and the paint clay from Griot’s Garage is one of my favorites, especially when combined with their legendary Speed Shine quick detail spray. The whole process of claying is easy and satisfying, and your car probably needs it already.
— Kyle Hyatt
Just on the threshold of our price cap is Chemical Guys’ 16-piece detailing arsenal. If you have a detailer in your life, they’ll definitely appreciate the goods packed into this kit. There’s car wash soap, wax, a bucket with a dirt guard and so many other great items for $100. Quality detailing gear isn’t cheap, which makes this a great bundle. It’s an especially great gift idea for someone just getting into car care.
— Sean Szymkowski
For the tech and auto enthusiast in your life, Echo Auto is a top choice since it brings a favorite voice assistant to the car on the go. Echo Auto gives you the flexibility to use Alexa wherever travels take you and can work with integrated smart devices back at home. It’s pretty 007 to tell Alexa to open your garage as you approach the house. Keep in mind there are a handful of cars Echo Auto doesn’t work with, but the vast majority of cars with a Bluetooth connection will be ready for some extra smarts.
— Sean Szymkowski
Carrying tools with you in your car is a good idea, even if you don’t work on your own car as a habit. Emergencies exist and being able to nip up a screw or bolt on the side of the road can mean the difference between a flatbed tow or enjoying the rest of your drive, so getting a comprehensive tool kit (bonus for it being as small a package as possible) is key. Enter the Wera Tool-Check Plus. It’s got bits and sockets, a ratchet and a bit driver and even an extension — and it’s tiny.
— Kyle Hyatt
Now you don’t have an excuse to let the weird machine-obsessed garage-hermit in your life go without some holiday cheer, and these all read as much more thoughtful than an Amazon or Starbucks gift card. Most of these products are ones that we Roadshowzen already own, use and love so consider them weirdo-tested and geek-approved.
Read more: Looking to spend a little more dough? Check out our best car gifts in 2020.
This story has been fully updated for 2020.