Getting a car cooler is a great investment for anyone who spends a good chunk of their time in their vehicle. This car accessory will keep your food and beverages cool for as long as the engine is running—and then some!
Whether you’re planning a trip to the beach, a road trip, or just want to keep your lunch cool on your way to work, there’s no denying this is a super handy and convenient gadget.
To help you pick out the best car cooler for you, we’ve put together this article. Here, you’ll find the top 10 products in the market reviewed by us. Then, you’ll come across a buying guide, which will help you identify which coolers are worth the price and which aren’t. Lastly, we’ve answered some of the most common questions about this topic, from how they work to how to use them.
The Knox Electric Cooler blows the competition out of the water. It’s available at a great price and yet it doesn’t compromise on any of its features.
For starters, this cooler box seals itself when you turn the handle into the “locking” position. That’s a pretty cool feature for when you want to preserve a low temperature inside the cooler while the car isn’t running.
Secondly, you can easily take it indoors to keep cool overnight. It comes with a standard 110-volt AC house charging cord and a 12-volt DC car charging cord. The next time you go on a road trip and stay at a hotel overnight, you can take the box with you and make sure everything will stay cool for a new day on the road.
Then, there’s also the fact that this box also doubles as a warmer. If for some reason you want your food to stay hot (for instance when you take food on the go with you to work or on a trip), you can too. There’s a switch you can flip to switch from the box’s contents being cooled or warmed.
Lastly, the Knox box has a capacity of 27 quarts, which is roughly 25 liters. That’s more than enough room to fit several bottles of pop, sandwiches, and some pieces of fruit.
Comes with AC/DC cables for in-car and in-house use
Keeps food on “cool” at 40ºF and “hot” at 130ºF
Has a capacity of 27 quarts
Very affordable when compared to similar products
Roomy for a family trip
Runs quietly but still does its job
Doesn’t have fancier settings, such as an LED light
When turned off it won’t stay cool or warm for many hours
When it comes down to price and quality, this cooler meets a lot of the requirements. It’s made from durable materials, fits a good amount of items inside, and runs like a charm even several months after you get it. Plus, it’s pretty affordable for what it is.
The Igloo Thermoelectric Cooler is made of hard, durable plastic. Along the edges of the lid, it has insolating material, which allows for the inside to stay cool when your car’s engine is off.
Luckily, its fan doesn’t make much noise. You’ll likely even forget the cooler is running. If that’s a deal-breaker for you, rest assured. And yet it’s powerful enough to keep its contents at 36ºF below the outside temperature.
There’s an eight-foot-long cable that comes with the cooler. You’re supposed to plug it into any 12-volt DC receptacle, for instance to the cigarette lighter. This way, you can store the cooler at the back of the car.
Lastly, the cooler can hold up to 32 12-ounce cans at once. That amounts to 24 liters (or 26 quarts).
Keeps contents 36ºF below the outside temperature
Comes with a long 12V DC cable
Has reasonable insulation, keeping things cool for longer
Doesn’t make noise while running
If you want to use it indoors, you’ll need an adaptor
This car cooler resembles more a mini-fridge than any other item on our list. Its capacity is somewhat limited, yet it does a great job of keeping its contents cool and warm, whichever you prefer.
Let’s talk about the elephant in the room: how cheap this car refrigerator is. It costs less than $50, which is a huge steal if you ask us. Especially for how reliable this gadget it.
You can fit up to six cans in this mini-cooler. It only has a 4-liter (or 6-quart) capacity. So while it’s not the roomiest option out there, it’s good for a few drinks and sandwiches.
It comes with an AC house adaptor and a DC car cable, so you can take it with you pretty much anywhere. On top of that, it also comes with a USB cable, allowing you to plug it to a 2A power bank portable battery.
You can choose one of seven different colors and designs. From the traditional white to the over-the-top red look, you’ll certainly find one you like.
There’s also the option to keep food warm instead of cold. In this case, your food and drinks will stay a warm 130ºF while the cooler is plugged in. If you were wondering, the coolest this gadget will keep its contents is 40ºF below ambiance temperature.
Includes AC/DC/USB cables for use everywhere
6-quart inner capacity (or four pop cans)
Keeps food warm (130ºF) and cool (40ºF below outside temperature)
Now we’re breaking out the big guns and upping our budget. If money isn’t a problem, you should splurge on this premium cooling and heating box.
Its steep price is the first thing that stands out. It clocks in at over $1,000, and this isn’t even the most expensive model on the market. However, its added features, efficiency, and reliability might make it worth every penny.
First things first, this is one of the roomiest mini-fridges out there. It has a capacity of 50 quarts or roughly 47 liters. That’s 72 pop cans! However, if you’re willing to shell out a couple hundred dollars more, you could get a cooler with a capacity of 82 quarts.
Then, we should also pay attention to the fancy control panel display. ARB gives you more settings to play around with than other brands do. For instance, you can manually adjust the exact temperature you want the inside of your cooler to be.
We’ve been calling it a cooler, but it can also keep food warm for you. All you have to do is change the settings and give it some time to reach your desired temperature.
In terms of efficiency, this easily beats all other gadgets. The inside temperature can reach 0ºF for the cold setting. That’s what we call a real car refrigerator.
You’ll notice by reading reviews that the vast majority of people who invest in this product are those living “off the grid.” They praise its power to keep food cold and safe while being energy efficient.
Can store up to 72 cans at once (50 quarts)
Food can be cooled to 0ºF
Has a backlit control panel that gives you total control
Includes AC/DC cables for use indoors and in the car
Is energy efficient in that it doesn’t drain the battery
Can be connected to an app on your phone
It’s a sizeable investment (even if worth it)
5. Wagan EL6224 24-Liter Thermoelectric Cooler and Warmer
Another good gadget to look at is the Wagan Portable 12V Cooler and Warmer. As the name suggests, it can keep food and beverages chilly or balmy. Plus, since it costs a little over $60, it’s a good item to try out if you’re still on the fence about it.
It holds up to 27 cans in total, all at once. That means its capacity is 25 quarts. It should be good enough for a day trip to the beach with the whole family.
There are two functions: “cold” and “hot.” The former will keep the contests chilly at around 30ºF below room temperature. The latter keeps food and drinks warm at a maximum of 140ºF. It’s also good to point out that the inside of the cooling/heating box will reach its lowest and highest temperatures in only 30 minutes.
Lastly, you may like to know that this isn’t a noisy unit. You could even forget it’s there.
Has a capacity of 25 quarts
Reaches 30ºF below room temperature (“cool” setting) and 140ºF (“hot” setting)
Hits desired temperature in just 30 minutes of it being on
It’s an affordable, straight-forward model
Is compact and easy to transport
On very hot days, the contents may not be as cold as desired
This item has earned its stripes and can be truly called a portable refrigerator. It can keep food and drinks frozen and is safe to use even on the warmest days. We think it can be well worth the investment
For starters, you’ll notice that this unit costs a little over $600. However, once you look at its specs, you’ll understand why. There are larger and more expensive models (12-quarts capacity) available for double the price if that’s something you’re interested in.
What we love the most about this unit is that it can drastically lower the inside temperature in mere minutes. The coldest it can go is -8ºF, which is crazy when you think about it. You could keep frozen food with you on the go without worrying about it thawing!
On top of doing a fantastic job at cooling food and beverages, it can also warm them up. The soft-touch operating panel lets you control the temperature of the inside of the box. You could raise it to 140ºF.
Luckily, it comes with both an AC and a DC cable. This means you can take the cooler indoors overnight to keep its contents cool or warm for a new day on the road.
The soft-touch panel lets you control the temperature
Can cool things to -8ºF and warm things to 140ºF
Has great insulation material, keeping things cool/warm for longer
Comes with AC/DC cables for your home and car
Can be connected to solar panels, for off-the-grid living
This is another good travel cooler. While it doesn’t keep things ice-cold, it’s still worth looking into if you’re going on a family trip soon.
The Koolatron Voyager has a capacity of 27 quarts. That means it can hold up to 48 pop cans at once. It’s spacious enough for a weekend-long family road trip.
It can cool food and beverages by 40ºF lower than ambient temperature. If you’re traveling with the AC on, your drinks will be nice and icy. This unit can also keep its contents warm at a temperature of 130ºF.
A great thing about this cooler/warmer is that it doesn’t make noise. The fan runs smoothly and quietly even after months or years of use.
Reaches 40ºF below outside temperature and 130ºF on “hot” setting
Has an automatic-locking system connected to the handle
The Costway Portable Fridge is ridiculously affordable when you take into consideration how powerful and efficient it is. It’s practically a steal when you compare it to similar models on the market today.
Costway’s most impressive feature is its extreme cooling ability. The inside of the cooler can be at a temperature between -4ºF and 50ºF. Moreover, in just 30 minutes, on “fast-cooling” mode, the inside temperature can go down from 90ºF to 32ºF. Very few portable cooling systems can beat that.
This not-so-mini-fridge has a capacity of 54 quarts. That means you can fit several 2-liter soda bottles, sandwiches, containers with food, pieces of fruit, and many other items.
There are a few accessories included, namely a few wire baskets. This will help you organize the inside of the cooler box and keep certain things within a hand’s reach.
It must also be said that this box is made from impact-resistant materials. If you accidentally drop it, for instance, it will still be in tip-top shape.
Extreme cooling range (-4ºF to 50ºF)
Built-in “fast cool” setting to lower temperature quickly
A Wagan gadget makes another appearance on that list. It’s quite affordable, good for a solo traveler or traveling couple, and easy to carry with you.
This box is decent at keeping things fresh and warm. On “cold” mode, the inside will get about 36ºF below room temperature. That’s not too shabby if you’re traveling with the AC on. On “hot” mode, the contents will be at around 140ºF.
There’s not much you can fit inside this cooler. It has a capacity of 6 quarts, which stores up to 9 pop cans (12-ounces each). However, as a plus side, there’s a built-in cup holder outside the box for your convenience.
The Wagan EL6206 has a shoulder fabric strap that makes it easy and convenient to carry it around.
Cools contents 36ºF below room temperature and warms them up to 140ºF
The last item on our list is a cooler/warmer with a narrow, compact design. It’s a good way of keeping foods at a pleasant temperature while on a long journey.
The Koolatron Compact has two features: “cool” and “warm.” You can select which one you want to use by flicking a switch.
On “cool” mode, the box will lower its inside temperature by 40ºF below room temperature. On “hot” mode, it will warm up its contents to 135ºF. When you turn it off, if you keep it closed, it will still stay cool/warm for a couple of hours.
Since this is a slim gadget, it can easily fit between the driver and passenger seat. This gives you easy access to the cigarette lighter, which will power the unit.
Lastly, you can fit quite a lot of stuff inside. It has a capacity of 18 quarts, making it more than good enough for a weekend trip for two people.
Keeps food at 40ºF below room temperature and warms them to 135ºF
Compact design means it fits in tight spaces
Has a capacity of 18 quarts
Easy to carry and store
Some users say it keeps food cooler than what the manufacturer says
Doesn’t come with a 110V AC house plug adaptor
Why Get a Car Cooler?
There are so many reasons why getting a car cooler is a great investment.
First of all, if you frequently go on long trips, you won’t ever have to take a sip of warm Coke again. Is there anything worse than that?
Secondly, since with a cooler you can pack a lunch and snack, you’ll save precious money on pitstops. Not to mention that if you pack a healthy lunch, you’re less likely to buy junk food and unhealthy snacks at a gas station.
Thirdly, if you’re traveling with children, having delicious food and drinks on hand will make everything easier. You won’t need to plan as many stops since you’ll have satisfying snacks on hand.
Lastly, and maybe most importantly, a car cooler ensures your food stays safe for consumption. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says you should keep meat, fish, and dairy at a chilly 40ºF. Otherwise, it will likely build up bacteria that can get you sick. As you can guess, packing a ham sandwich and leaving it in a hot car is less than ideal. With a cooler, you ensure the meat is stored safely.
How Does a 12V Car Cooler Work?
A 12V car cooler has a thermoelectric plate with a fan mounted on it. When you plug it into your car’s 12-volt outlet, it converts electricity into cold air. Then, the fan starts moving to distribute that chilly air evenly through the entire cooler box.
That’s the practical answer to how a car cooler works. There’s more in the specifics, such as knowing how a thermoelectric plate runs, but we won’t go into it.
Do Coolers Work When the Vehicle’s Engine Is Off?
When you turn off the engine, you want to make sure the cooler has also turned off. Otherwise, if it keeps running, it could drain your vehicle’s battery.
Even when it’s turned off, it will still keep things cool for a while. How long your food will stay cold after you’ve unplugged the cooler depends on the product you got. Some can keep things chilly for up to 10 hours, while others barely keep them refrigerated for one hour.
Car Cooler Buying Guide: Which Should I Get?
If none of the car coolers we’ve picked are what you’re looking for, you can find one on your own. To prevent you from getting lost in your search, here are some factors you should consider before making a purchase.
How many items do you want to fit inside the cooler? This will be the first elimination factor when it comes to getting a car cooler. If you’re traveling with your family, we recommend getting one that has at least 25 quarts capacity.
If you tend to travel solo or with another person, you don’t need to get a cooler that big. Something between 6 and 10 quarts should be enough. Especially for quick trips that don’t last longer than a weekend.
Ease of Use
Also, take into consideration how easy it is to use the 12V cooler. Can you lock it and open it easily? Would it be a hassle to install it into your car every time you need to take it with you?
Our favorite coolers are the ones that have a detachable lid. That makes it easy to clean them, but more on that later. Moreover, we like it when they come with straps or sturdy handles.
Power Supply and Usage
All 12-volt coolers have a DC plug adaptor. This can be hooked up to the cigarette lighter, for instance, and that’s that: your cooler will start working.
Others also have a 110-volt AC plug adaptor. You can use it to connect it to a power outlet at home. This has a big advantage: when you check into a hotel, you can plug it in to keep cooling down your food overnight. This way it won’t drain your car’s battery or compromise the quality of your food.
If the cooler you have your heart set on doesn’t have an AC power cord, you can always purchase it separately. Yet, it’s more convenient to have it come with your cooler.
Before choosing a cooler, read the specifications. How cold and hot can it get? The average car cooler will only cool things down to 40ºF below room temperature. That’s not bad if you’re traveling with the AC on, but not that impressive if you’re not.
The most expensive coolers for cars can lower the temperature much more than that. Some models can cool things down to below-zero temperatures. Those are true car refrigerators, which is also why they’re pricier.
It all comes down to how important it is for you to have ice-cold drinks on hand. If you want to have a mini-fridge in your vehicle, go for it—spend the big bucks!
We’ve alluded to this point earlier in the article, but we can’t stress this enough. The best car cooler will have a decent insulation system.
When you unplug the cooler, you want the contents to still be fresh for hours to come. Especially if you’re planning a quick picnic on the beach or long road-side stops. That’s true energy-efficiency.
Some models come with a warranty plan. This should make you more confident about investing your hard-earned money into a good gadget. Contact the seller to ask for their warranty plans if they don’t mention it on the product’s website or Amazon page.
How to Keep a Car Cooler Brand New?
To ensure your car cooler stays in great shape, you need to look after it. Regular dusting is a good place to start. You don’t want the fan or the thermoelectric plate building up dust and grime. This could make them overheat and stop working in the long run. You should do this once every six months, just to be sure everything is in order.
You should also bring it indoors when you’re not using it. Some models aren’t built to withstand extreme temperatures. So, before a blizzard or heatwave, bring the cooling box indoors and stow it somewhere safe.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do coolers keep food and drinks cold?
They have a thermoelectric plate and fan inside. This mechanism converts electrical energy into a cold airflow, which the fan then distributes inside the box. The electricity comes from your car’s 12-volt output plug, which gets it from the vehicle’s battery.
Do coolers suck up a car’s battery?
Yes, they go. The least energy-efficient models are quick the energy guzzler. That’s why it’s important to take precautions so you don’t end up with a drained battery.
Can a cooler drain a car’s battery?
Definitely. To avoid that problem, make sure the model you’re getting is energy-efficient. More often than not, there will be an “ECO” setting that can be turned on to save on energy. Some coolers will even turn off when your vehicle’s battery reaches a dangerously low level. Alternatively, you can always (and should, just to be safe) unplug the cooler from the car to ensure it won’t drain it.
How expensive is a 12V cooler?
Prices fluctuate quite a bit. They can be as cheap as $50, which is a steal, or as expensive as $1,200. It all depends on what features you think are important. Large coolers are more expensive than small, compact ones. Furthermore, coolers that can lower the temperature to near 0ºF will be much pricier, too.
Do coolers work on hotter days?
Yes, they do. How well they work is up for debate, though. Most 12V car coolers can only lower the temperature 40ºF below the ambient temperature. That means that on a hot 90ºF day, in a car without the AC running, your food and drinks will be at around 50ºF. That’s not desirable if you want to take a sip of ice-cold water. This is where car refrigerators come in handy. They effectively lower its inside temperature considerably even on the hottest days. For instance, it can be 90ºF outside and your food and drinks will still be kept at 20ºF.
How much can a cooler fit?
As you can see from the products we’ve reviewed, that varies a lot. The smallest car cooler we’ve mentioned can only fit 9 12-ounce cans (6 quarts). The largest, however, can fit an astounding 72 12-ounce cans (50 quarts).
How to clean a car refrigerator?
You’ll have to be gentle when cleaning the inside of your portable mini-fridge. With a damp towel, wipe down the sides and bottom of the box without applying much pressure. Then, apply some anti-grease, anti-bacterial cleaning gel or spray to the inside of the cooler. Again, with a clean damp towel wipe it all down gently.
Can I put ice inside my thermoelectric cooler?
Never add ice to your thermoelectric cooler. It can spill on the thermoelectric plate and ruin it. The same goes for any poorly stored liquid. If there’s a chance it will spill, don’t store it in the cooling box.