How technology has moved on. Last time I visited a car wash was probably 15 years ago - maybe even longer. Back then, you drove in to the wash bay and a gantry moved back and forth over the car doing the cleaning and drying. The main cleaning rotors had those awful plastic bristles on them that look soft but do a great job of scratching the clearcoat on the car, and in the drying cycle, the water dripping off the gantry meant the car was never properly dried and you ended up water spots. I did try one of the "touch-free" washes (brought on by litigious Americans who had mirrors torn off by the brush-style washers) and they were completely useless. Ever since then, I've been either hand washing my car or using a jetwash. The jetwash is pretty useless for actually cleaning - it moves the dirt around but you always end up with a thin layer of scum, so I mostly used it for getting under the car to clear all the crud off underneath (especially in the winter).
Skip forwards to 2012 and a friend of mine had been getting peculiarly enthusiastic about a local car wash place. When he mentioned that the main cleaning mechanism wasn't plastic bristles but a sort of chamois leather type brush, I was intrigued. So I went along to see what all the fuss was about. It's a conveyor washer where you drive a front wheel on to a conveyor system that then drags the car through a tunnel filled with all sorts of washing goodies. I've never used one of these before, let alone seen one - but then like I said, it's been over 15 years since I've been near a car wash. So I was dragged through all sorts of colourful washes, spinning brushes, sprays, rinses, wax waterfalls, underbody sprays and a bloody clever device that applied tyre shine only to the tyres (ie. not the wheels so it wasn't just a circular brush). The very last thing before being spat out into the sunlight was a collection of four jet engine style dryers that were so effective I imagine anything even slightly loose on the outside of the car would just get torn off. The best part of all this was the towel-monkeys though. Local college students earning a bit of extra cash who used super soft towels to give the car a final rub-down to get rid of any final water spots. A combination of buff blokes and hot girls tending to my car was well worth the extra cash tip and the end result was a car that was easily as clean as it is when I've done it by hand but for considerably less effort. I've since checked the clearcoat and there's no signs of the old tell-tale scratches and swirls that you'd get with the old style automatic washers. Colour me impressed.
Cost to me : $14 plus a tip to the towel-monkeys. The place I went to do everything up to a full-service $50 valet which is all the above plus a full inside clean and valet while you sit in an air-conditioned waiting area filled with decent vending machines, comfy sofas and chairs and modern furniture. Think I might be going back there.