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Things Got Messy When We Tested the Best Portable Upholstery Cleaners

a group of people testing upholstery cleaners
Best Portable Carpet Cleaners for 2024Gannon Burgett - Car and Driver


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As the parent of four- and six-year-olds, I know all too well how important it is to have a portable carpet and upholstery cleaner on hand, especially for my vehicles. Spilled drinks, the occasional spit-up, and other questionable stains that end up on car seats and carpets are no match for these handy little machines.

We gear testers pored over the top sellers and ordered five high-quality contenders. We then put them all to the test to see which one was best for getting even the most embedded dirt, debris, and stains out of your car to get it looking and (arguably just as importantly) smelling as good as new.

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Things to Consider

Portability

For indoor carpet and upholstery cleaners, portability might not be as important a factor. But when you’re trying to clean out your vehicle and need to get into the nooks and crannies, make sure the carpet cleaner you buy is easy to move and carry. Look for a cleaner that’s the right size, weight, and shape for your needs (and physical strength; some of these devices tend to be heavy).

Performance

This is a tough one to gauge without getting your hands on a portable upholstery cleaner, but through both our testing and anecdotal feedback by online reviewers, you should be able to figure out how well a given upholstery cleaner performs across various surfaces and stains.

Ease of Use

From filling the water tanks to cleaning the machine after use, how easy it is to use a cleaner can make or break the upholstery-cleaner experience. It might be easy to fill up, but maybe the nozzle doesn’t spray all that well. Or perhaps it performs well but cleaning out the dirty tank afterward makes it more of a chore than it needs to be. Make sure to find a unit that balances performance and convenience.

Cord and Hose Length

The length of the cord and hose affects how easily you can maneuver a portable carpet and upholstery cleaner around your vehicle. An extension cord can help, but having that extra slack in the power cord or extra length in the cleaning hose can mean the difference between cleaning your entire car in one fell swoop and having to stop, reposition the machine, and start again after cleaning each seat.

Portable Upholstery Cleaners vs. Steam Cleaners vs. Upholstery Cleaner Sprays

These three product types seem very similar, but they're best used in different situations. Here's what you need to know:

  • Portable Upholstery Cleaners: The devices we tested here are tools that combine water and concentrated cleaning solutions to clean wide swaths of carpet and upholstery. They can be used in both your vehicle and your home. By combining water, soap, and agitation, they work better overall, while being more expensive than simple sprays.

  • Upholstery Cleaner Sprays: These cleaning products are typically best for spot-cleaning singular stains. It's recommended to spray cleaner on the stain and let it sit, then follow it up with agitation via a microfiber towel or a brush with bristles. These are the cheapest and easiest stain-cleaning solutions, although you'll need to apply some elbow grease—and may end up with "clean spots" on your seats and carpet that don't match the surrounding area.

  • Steam Cleaners: These machines are designed to loosen sticky, stubborn messes from cloth and plastic by applying super-hot steam. Once loosened, simply wipe away the dirt with a microfiber towel. However, portable steam cleaners often struggle against deep stains and grime but will take care of tough, sticky messes that portable carpet and upholstery cleaners can't handle.


How We Tested Portable Upholstery Cleaners

We evaluated each portable upholstery cleaner on several key aspects: portability, performance on car carpets and stains, ease of use, and any additional features each device may have featured. Each of these carpet and upholstery cleaning machines was tested on car seats and carpets against common messes like coffee, cola, and ketchup to see how effectively they removed each stain, first with a single pass and again after multiple scrub and extraction passes.

The Best Portable Carpet and Upholstery Cleaners

Spotlite

The Kenmore Spotlight impressed us with its versatility and user-friendly design. At 10 pounds, it’s reasonably portable and powerful. We appreciated that it seemed to suck up more liquid than some other models, leaving surfaces dryer after cleaning. It effectively removed most stains, though we found some chunks of ketchup stuck in the head after we were done. Those were removed easily enough, though, simply by dunking the entire head in a bucket of water, which is something users should probably do after every use anyway, to clean out the hose.

The attachments were easy to swap, and we found the bristles stiff for scrubbing. Filling the cleaner was a bit tricky due to the manufacturer's instructions to use "nine caps full" of liquid, but that’s more an issue with the included cleaning solution than with the cleaner itself—and you don’t need to stick with Kenmore shampoo solution if you don’t want to. Cleaning the dirty bin was straightforward, thanks to the flip-top opening, though some nooks and crannies did trap dirt.

Of all the portable car upholstery and carpet cleaners we tested, the Kenmore Spotlight performed the best.

<p><a href="https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0BFHH14V9?tag=syn-yahoo-20&ascsubtag=%5Bartid%7C2160.g.61440066%5Bsrc%7Cyahoo-us" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Shop Now;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">Shop Now</a></p><p>Spotlite </p><p>amazon.com</p><p>$107.34</p><span class="copyright">Gannon Burgett</span>

Shop Now

Spotlite

amazon.com

$107.34

Gannon Burgett

Kenmore Before/After

Stains, left to right: coffee, ketchup, cola

kenmore before and after
Gannon Burgett

StainStriker

The Shark PX201 StainStriker stood out in our tests with its strong cleaning performance and easy use. It tackled coffee, cola, and ketchup with minimal passes. We found it easy to fill and clean, and the pleasant—though strong—scent from the included cleaner was a nice touch. The bristles provided excellent scrubbing action, and the wider spray pattern covered a generous area with more water output.

However, the relatively small dirty tank required frequent emptying, and the trigger’s design was less ergonomic than others, causing some discomfort during extended use. And its hose and cord aren't as long as our top-choice Kenmore's. Despite these minor issues, the StainStriker’s performance and ease of cleaning, with a locking swing arm for the dirty tank, make it an excellent choice.

<p><a href="https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0C9H1ZRH4?tag=syn-yahoo-20&ascsubtag=%5Bartid%7C2160.g.61440066%5Bsrc%7Cyahoo-us" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Shop Now;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">Shop Now</a></p><p>StainStriker</p><p>amazon.com</p><p>$124.99</p><span class="copyright">Gannon Burgett</span>

Shark Before/After

Stains, left to right: coffee, ketchup, cola

shark upholstery cleaner before and after
Gannon Burgett

Little Green HydroSteam

Bissell is a staple in the upholstery-cleaning world, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Little Green HydroSteam Pet is a solid choice for use in your car. Its steam function seemed to provide an extra boost in cleaning power, which was helpful on tougher stains. Although we didn't use it on any pet-related stains in this test, in our day-to-day use, we found that the steam function helps loosen pesky pet stains. The five-inch tough-stain tool and multi-surface cleaner tool were particularly effective too.

However, we noticed the steam function emitted a somewhat unpleasant smell, and its suction power wasn’t as strong as we hoped. Despite this, the cleaner’s soft brushes did a good job, and we appreciated how easy it was to clean the dirty tank with its large mouth opening and convenient handle.

<p><a href="https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0C9V4L32W?tag=syn-yahoo-20&ascsubtag=%5Bartid%7C2160.g.61440066%5Bsrc%7Cyahoo-us" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Shop Now;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">Shop Now</a></p><p>Little Green HydroSteam</p><p>amazon.com</p><p>$229.99</p><span class="copyright">Gannon Burgett</span>

Bissell Before/After

Stains, left to right: coffee, ketchup, cola

before and after of bissell
Gannon Burgett

Portable Spot

The Dirt Devil Portable Spot impressed us with its lightweight design and effectiveness on quick clean-ups. Weighing only eight pounds, it was easy to carry around. During our tests, it handled coffee and cola stains admirably, sucking them up almost immediately. However, it struggled with thicker stains like ketchup, even after multiple passes.

The squishy trigger and inconsistent spray pattern were minor annoyances, but we loved the large mouth opening for easy filling. The lightweight nozzle was easy to handle, though its single row of bristles made suction less efficient. We also found that the dirty tank’s lid didn’t lock in securely, so it could easily spill if knocked over. If you're looking for a lightweight, affordable upholstery cleaning machine for your car, this is it.

<p><a href="https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0BZDT4LSX?tag=syn-yahoo-20&ascsubtag=%5Bartid%7C2160.g.61440066%5Bsrc%7Cyahoo-us" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Shop Now;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">Shop Now</a></p><p>Portable Spot</p><p>amazon.com</p><p>$120.64</p><span class="copyright">Gannon Burgett</span>

Dirt Devil Before/After

Stains, left to right: coffee, ketchup, cola

dirt devil before and after
Gannon Burgett

Spillbuster Cordless

The Black + Decker Spillbuster cleaner offers a unique proposition due to its all-in-one design that doesn’t use a hose or an array of swappable heads. At just four pounds, it’s the lightest model we tested, making it perfect for quick spot cleaning, at least in theory.

During testing, however, we encountered significant issues with water leakage from the back of the unit and an inefficient spray pattern that dispersed water unevenly in a "V" shape, like a cobra spitting venom. This design flaw led to inconsistent cleaning and potential messes if the water tank was overfilled. It’s also worth noting that, unlike every other unit we tested, this one doesn’t have a power sprayer. Instead, it relies on a hand-squeeze trigger like you’d find on a standard spray bottle.

While it is convenient and very portable, it’s not the unit we’d choose. It left behind extensive staining compared to the competition, its suction power was significantly lower, and the lack of a proper spray mechanism all added up to a rather underwhelming upholstery cleaner.

<p><a href="https://www.amazon.com/dp/B086T5FFZW?tag=syn-yahoo-20&ascsubtag=%5Bartid%7C2160.g.61440066%5Bsrc%7Cyahoo-us" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Shop Now;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">Shop Now</a></p><p>Spillbuster Cordless </p><p>amazon.com</p><p>$96.99</p><span class="copyright">Gannon Burgett</span>

Black + Decker Before/After

Stains, left to right: coffee, ketchup, cola

black and decker before and after
Gannon Burgett

How We Tested Portable Carpet Cleaners

This was a messy and, frankly, disgusting test. Thankfully, we had the newest member of the Gear Team, assistant testing editor Mason Cordell, on hand to spray and extract floor mat after floor mat that had been coated with an array of liquids (ketchup is a liquid, right?) to put each cleaner to the test. It wasn’t the most glorious debut for Mason, but it was certainly helpful.

To ensure comprehensive results, each portable upholstery cleaner was tested on car floor mats from the back of associate testing editor Katherine Keeler’s Honda Odyssey minivan, which was previously used as a vehicle on a garlic farm, and thus the perfect candidate for this test, and a pair of seats out of a Chrysler Town & Country. We used common stains such as coffee, cola, and ketchup, the latter of which I personally had to smear into each floor mat with my fingers for maximum chaos (sorry, Mason!).

After letting the stains set in for a good four or five hours, each was subjected to a single pass of suction by each device, followed by three full scrub, spray, and extraction passes to evaluate how easily the stains were removed and how much effort was required to get them as clean as possible.

Portability and Ease of Use: We assessed the weight and design of each cleaner for portability. Ease of use was evaluated based on how simple it was to fill, operate, and clean the machine after use.

Performance: Stain removal effectiveness was gauged on a scale of one to five passes, noting how much of the stain was lifted in each pass. The suction power, spray pattern, and bristle effectiveness were also considered.

Cord and Hose Length: Cord and hose lengths were measured to determine the reach and maneuverability within a vehicle.

Additional Features: Extra attachments and unique features such as pet tools, crevice tools, and special cleaning formulas were noted for their added value.

upholstery cleaner
Gannon Burgett - Car and Driver

FAQs

How often should I clean my car upholstery?

It might be a cop-out, but the answer is the venerable “it depends.” Do you have pets? Kids? A messy spouse? If so, you might want to use a portable upholstery cleaner more often than most. Generally speaking, however, vacuum regularly and whip out the upholstery cleaner once or twice a year to keep your carpet and seats looking and smelling as good as new.

Can these cleaners be used on home furniture?

Yes, all of these portable upholstery cleaners can also be used on home furniture. Just make sure to use them as instructed by the manufacturer to ensure you’re using the right soap, right amount of water, and properly adhering to all recommended use cases.

Do I need to use a special cleaning solution?

While some cleaners come with their own solutions, you can often use general upholstery cleaning solutions. There are scented and unscented options, solutions with oxygen-powered stain-fighting capabilities, and more to pick from. Just be sure to read all instructions accordingly to make sure each solution is compatible with your cleaning machine and appropriate for whatever material you’re cleaning.

Are these cleaners safe for all fabric types?

Most upholstery cleaners are safe for a variety of fabrics. That said, it’s always better to be safe than sorry, so start by testing a small, hidden area first to ensure no discoloration or damage.

How do I maintain my portable upholstery cleaner?

Regularly clean the tanks and nozzles, especially after heavy use. Aside from that, follow the manufacturer’s maintenance instructions, and your cleaner should last for years to come.

two people using a portable carpet cleaner on messy rug
Gannon Burgett

Why Trust Us?

Hearst Autos combines the talent, resources, and expertise of three of the largest, most influential automotive publications in the world. The Gear Team has tested a wide variety of automotive products, parts, accessories, and gear, such as interior cleaners, dog seat covers, and shop vacs. We get our hands on each and every product we test. Most are purchased; some are supplied by manufacturers.

The Gear Team doesn't need to game algorithms for traffic or promote lousy products for clicks. We're more concerned with our reputation and the trust that our readers have in Autoweek, Car and Driver, and Road & Track to deliver honest opinions and expert evaluations. Read more about our product testing and evaluation process here.

person using a laptop
Gannon Burgett