Ok as promised. Paint care can pretty much be broken down in to 5 steps for that optimal appearance.
. Seems simple enough, but deffinitely deserves revisiting as it is can be a big source of swirl marks and scratches in your paint as well as possibly causing your paint to more rapidly oxidize. You will want to use a good Ph balanced car washing soap. I know this is a matter of some debate but dish soaps should never be used on a cars finish. They are far too harsh and cause rapid oxidation of paint as well as strip the paint of any wax protection it had as well as oils in the paint.
You will want to also have a good wash mit. This is a source of contamination you will want to watch out for. The mit should never touch the ground and be ran through the washer frequently. Any tiny little spec of dust will be ran across the paint and cause microscopic scratches (that cob web you see in the clear when the sun hits the car). For washing it's best to work on one section of paint at a time. Wash and rince otherwise the car wash soap will leave a film on the paint. I personally divide my Insight up in to 5 sections with good results. Roof and front and rear windshield, each side, hood and front bumper, rear bumper. It's important to start at the top and work your way down that way the dirt moves down as you clean it.
For drying you'll want to do this immediately after wards. Some areas where the water is hard can leave water spots. These minerals actually etch paint when allowed to sit. I'm dealing with an etched spot from a swamp cooler drip on another of my cars. Anyways, you have a few options, either a 100% cotton terry towel, chamios with my personal recommendation on a good synthetic one, or a mircofiber drying towel.
Personaly recommendation for car wash: Meguiar's gold class car wash soap
2 - Cleaning and contamination removal
The next step really after washing and drying is to evaluate the paints condition. This can be done with a bear dry hand. Run it over the surface of the paint and feel it. Well kept contaminant free paint will be as smooth as glass. Likely though you will have a rough surface, what you feel is bonded contaminants on the paint. The most effective way to remove these is with a clay bar. There are several types of kits available, they consist of a clay bar and some sort of lubircant spray. You spray the lube on the paint and run the clay bar over it, you will actually hear it picking up the bonded contaminants off of the paint. When your done the paint will feel like glass again.
Another option to consider is a dedicated paint cleaner. If you have any problems that a clay bar doesn't remove like oxidation, light scratches, or swirls a paint cleaner will help remove these defects as well as take care of any bonded contaminants that clay barring missed. There are many available, you want one thats not gritty and won't do more damage to the paint that it helps. Most people believe compounds are the answer, they are not. Compounds are old school stuff and are more for single stage paint, not todays clear coat paint jobs.
Personal recommendation for Clay Bar: Meguiar's Quick Clay, comes with Quick Detailer for lubricant.
Recommendation for paint cleaner: Meguiar's body scrub or Deep crystal #1 paint cleaner. If you have scratches Meguiar's ScratchX. All are effective when applied by hand and are safe for clear coat use.
3 - Polishing
This step is often confused with waxing, but it's a completely different animal. This step is somewhat optional but is one to take if you want the best possible results. What polishing does is restore the natural oils in paint that makes it naturally shiny. It will also enhance the color depth of the paint. I generally apply polish once every few months.
Personal Recommendation: Meguiar's Deep Crystal #2 Polish.
4 - Protecting
This is the stage where you finally apply wax to the perfectly prepared surface. Wax makes the paint appear more glossy and also creates a sacraficial barrier between your paint and the enviroment. There are two types or was, straight wax's and cleaner wax's. If you have some of the above issues and are mild in nature a cleaner wax can be a quick one step solution if you don't have the time to spend on your car. The other is a straight wax which will give better overall results.
My personal favorite is Meguiar's new NXT Gen Tech Wax. It's a polymer wax which I can't say enough about. It's easy to work with, fills in imperfections and is extremely durable. Like I said previously, if you try it and don't like it for some strange reason they'll give you your money back.
5 - maintaining
So you've just spent hours doing the above no one can blame you for being lazy. This step allows you to do that. There are several products that allow you to get the just washed car look in only a few minutes with minimal effort. If you were to just take a towel and wipe a dirty car off you'd get all the dust in the towel and end up dragging it across the paint and putting more small scratches in it. However, these quick detailer like products when sprayed on the surface encapsulate the dust and lift it off of the paint so when you wipe it away it does not scratch. Basically you spritz, wipe, flip the towel to the dry side and wipe again. It will add gloss too. I haven't honestly washed my car in two months and with matenience it looks like it has been several times. This does require a coat or two of wax on the surface to work though.
Personaly Recommendation: Meguiar's Quick Detailer
As far as toweling 100% cotton terry cloth towels work fine, but a newer breed of towels called microfiber towels are now available which work much better than cotton towels. They are much less likely to cause towel inflicted scratches and do a better job of picking up whatever which means less work for you and less chance of any scratching. Wash these separately from your cotton towels, they will pick up any cotton lint that the others leave behind.
For applicators, foam applicator pads work excellent. They work great for applying any sort of product and will do so without scratching. You can also use a towel for applying a product, but it just works better with the foam applicators.
Did I miss anything?
I know I am very biased in my product opinions, but I have found Meguiar's to work as they say their products will. I am yet to be dissapointed by anything they sell, and their new products just keep getting better. They throw tons of money in to their new product formulations and support the automotive enthusiast public. I have seen zaino, frakly I find it too plasticky of a look. I based my product recommendations on things I've used in the past and have had good results on, but mainly the products your likely to find at your local automotive parts stores. They also have a professional line of products which I now use almost exclusively, which is a whole new ball game, but the end results are supurb. I have somewhat of a mini detail business going on the side. Mainly it's once in a while my dad will bring home a car to sell off of his lot and I will give it the several hour treatment and 80% of the time it sells to the first person who comes to look at it.
I have a Meguiar's G100 Porte Cable Dual action polisher. It oscillates and rotates at the same time, but is completely idiot proof. You can't burn paint with it. After clay barring with one of their professional clay bars I will use the DA polisher with a cutting pad and Pro #83 dual action cleaner polish. This removes swirls and does some polishing action. If I want that extra shine I'll go back with #81 Hand Polish with a polishing pad, then top it with a coat of the NXT Gen Tech Wax (I'm serious you have to try it) on a finishing pad. This is all done with foam pads on the polisher and wiped off with a microfiber towel. I think pictures speak better than words so here's a link to a black Lexus I did this process on:
http://www.meguiarsonline.com/forums/sh ... readid=176
Like I said, I wish more of you were here, we'd have a detail day.