USB charging ports and Bluetooth are quickly becoming par for the course on most new cars, but step back in time just a few years and it’s a very different story. Less than a decade ago, these were optional extras on many vehicles, yet today’s dependence on smartphones - for music and navigation primarily - makes the lack of USB and Bluetooth feel like you’ve bought a car from the middle of the 20th century.
But fear not, as the humble 12V socket - also known as the cigarette lighter socket - can come to the rescue. There are a huge range of devices that slot into the 12V socket, which is often conveniently located somewhere between the front two seats, to power your smartphone, best dash cam and sat-nav, and even give your car Bluetooth connectivity via the radio.
These devices are often very cheap - as in, less than £10/$10 in many cases - and come in a variety of shapes, sizes and colours to help them fit in neatly and complement the interior of your car.
If you're charging your phone in the car then you might also want one of the best car phone holders.
How to buy the best car charger
There are a few key questions you must ask yourself before buying any of these products. Firstly, will they fit in your car, and once in place will it be easily accessible? Most cars locate their 12V socket somewhere obvious between the front seats, and some even offer a second socket in the back.
But some are tucked away, hidden from view, or located close to a piece of interior which could obstruct anything you plan to plug into them. Some cars even locate the 12V socket deep in the front passenger footwell, out of sight and almost out of reach; great for subtly installing a dash cam, but not so helpful when trying to charge your phone.
Next you’ll want to decide if the charger will be left in place all the time, or removed after each journey, and whether it will complement the aesthetics of your car. Thankfully, many of these products come in a variety of colours to help out with that last point.
You should be aware that the charging capabilities of these products depends on how many devices are plugged into them, and you should avoid leaving devices - especially larger ones like iPads - charging while parked, as they could drain the battery.
This USB car charger comes from RAVPower, a big name in the world of power banks and chargers. It has two USB ports for powering two devices at once, and has a scratch-resistant metal finish.
So-called iSmart 2.0 technology promises fast charging, with the battery of an iPhone X taking as little as 2.2 hours to charge. RAVPower claims the Samsung Galaxy S9 takes exactly two hours. The charger is available in black, gold, red and silver, so hopefully you can pick one which best suits the interior of your car.
At a penny under £7, we think this charger represents excellent value for money.
Most USB car chargers stick out some way from the 12V lighter socket, but this option from DIVI is much smaller. It’s so small, in fact, that it sits almost flush against the edge of the socket, making its two USB ports look like they were always fitted to your car - not a sub-£10 aftermarket addition.
The charger offers up to 2.4A of power from each port, meaning you can recharge the batteries of two smartphones at once, or use of to power a dash cam or satellite navigation system. You could even give your car the gift of Alexa, and plug in a second-generation Amazon Echo Dot, if that’s your thing.
Our only criticism here - and one shared with a lot of these chargers - is how the ports contain a bright blue light, which can be distracting, especially when driving at night. We wish manufacturer wouldn’t fit these LEDs. The charger is available in black, silver and red.
Very few cars have wireless charging, but with this phone holder it’s a feature you can easily add to your vehicle for a little over £20. This phone holder works like most others slotting into an air vent then hooking around the back of the outlet’s fins to stay in place. This solution doesn’t work on every type of vent, so check the diagrams carefully before purchasing.
Once fitted, you’ll want to plug the holder into your car’s lighter socket or USB port (a fast charger is available separately) and your phone will charge up whenever it is placed in the holder.
Spring-loaded arms ensure any smartphone fits securely in the holder, and it can be rotated to hold your phone in landscape or portrait orientation.
Most car chargers are limited to two USB ports, but this option from TeckNet serves up four ports, with a total power output of 9.6A. The manufacturer even claims the device can charge four tablets at once.
An intelligent circuit design is claimed to prevent short-circuiting, overheating and over-charging, and it’s surprisingly compact at 2.24 inches long, by 1.55 inches wide.
This charger is particularly useful if you need to charge up two smartphones, while also powering a dash cam and satellite navigation system - or if your rear passengers are also low on juice. Put another way, you’ll be considered a life-saver on the drive back from a weekend festival.
As with other larger car chargers, you may want to crack out the tape measure and check the device will fit, especially if you vehicle’s 12V socket is located is a tight cubbyhole, as is sometimes the case.
This device from HiGoing comprises two separate pieces. First there is a USB charger, which slots into the 12V socket and can power two devices at once.
Next, there is a Bluetooth module which slots into your car’s auxiliary cable input. Connect your phone to this over Bluetooth, and calls and music will be played through the car’s sound system.
The Bluetooth module is wireless and has a battery life of 10 hours of continuous music streaming. It is then recharged either by plugging into a USB port at home, or by attaching magnetically to the top of the 12V socket charger.
This may sound a little complex, but offers a flexible solution for drivers whose vehicle has a auxiliary input but not Bluetooth, and come with the added extra of two USB charging sockets.
Four charging ports is all well and good, but what is all five seats are occupied? And everyone needs their phone charging? No problem, as this option by HUNDA serves up five USB ports.
Peak power (delivered to one device at a time) is 9A, while this drops to 2.4A if all five ports are occupied.
Because such a large charge likely won’t fit wherever your car’s lighter socket is located, the device comes with a two foot extension cable, so you can place the hub more centrally in the vehicle. We reckon dropping it into a central cup holder, or on the arm rest between the car’s two front seats would be ideal.
Older cars without USB charging ports and Bluetooth audio can feel positively archaic these days, but as long as they have a 12V lighter socket and an FM radio, this is a very easy problem to fix.
Step forward the FM transmitter and charging kit. This sub-£15 gadget slots into your lighter socket, then can charge devices from its (admittedly low-power) 2.1A USB ports, and play music from your phone on the car’s stereo.
The device does this by taking your phone’s audio over a Bluetooth connection, then broadcasting it as a FM frequency. Simply tune your car radio to this frequency, and you can listen to whatever your phone is playing, through the car stereo. There are also buttons for controlling music playback, volume, and accepting or ending incoming calls.
Colour options include black, blue and grey. The only downside is the inherent chuckiness of this device, and how it may not fit neatly in some cars; it depends on where the 12V socket is on your particular vehicle.