The Best Car Coolers & Refrigerators (Review & Buying Guide) in 2020

It’s the ultimate form of convenience and one appliance many people love to have in their vehicles: a cooler/refrigerator to...

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cooluli
Cooluli Mini Fridge Electric Cooler
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The Best Car Coolers & Refrigerators (Review & Buying Guide) in 2020
Dometic 12V Electric Powered Cooler
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The Best Car Coolers & Refrigerators (Review & Buying Guide) in 2020
Gourmia Thermoelectric Mini Fridge

It’s the ultimate form of convenience and one appliance many people love to have in their vehicles: a cooler/refrigerator to keep drinks cold while you’re on the road. Adding a cooler or small refrigerator to your car is extremely simple; it’s practically plug and play. We’ve investigated the top brands and found the very best car coolers on the market so you have everything you need to know about outfitting your ride with a car fridge. Take a look at the top car refrigerator models on the market in our buying guide below.

The Best Car Coolers & Refrigerators

King of the hill in this list, the very best car refrigerator, is Cooluli’s mini fridge. Not only do you get the car charger power cord, but you can also plug it into a 110V indoor outlet to charge as well. Once it’s charged, you have a twenty-four hour power reserve in eco-mode, meaning you can take this to the beach for the day, take it to work and leave it in the break room, and it’ll still be cold when you get back to it.

You can hold up to six cans in this four-liter capacity, or use the heating option to maintain hot foods from 122 F to 144 F. If you’re up for a bit of late-night snacking, you can fit your drive-thru meal in this for the duration of the ride home, and enjoy it once you get inside. It’s not recommended to charge this via the USB port in your computer (won’t gather enough energy), and put some time in between switching it from hot to cold, and vice versa.

Key Features
  • Four-liter capacity holds six 12 oz cans
  • AC/DC and USB power options
  • Twenty-four hour power reserve for on-the-go use
  • Low temperature range of 40 F to 45 F
  • Environmentally-friendly construction and completely freon-free
Specification
  • Brand Cooluli
  • Model CMF4LW
  • Weight 4.8 pounds

We all know Igloo as the kings of summer, the ones who’ve kept our Coronas cold throughout hot July days. Igloo came close to snagging the top spot with their twenty-six quart unit. As a heads-up, you will need to buy an indoor adapter if you plan on using this anywhere besides the car. Apart from that, you get a durable built-in 12V cable with excellent durability, and a stabilizer on either end.

The motor is brilliantly quiet. Thanks to the brushless technology, you’ll barely even know that it’s on. If the radio’s on, the noise from your Igloo will get buried beneath the sound. They kept it traditional by putting a handle over the top for easy carrying. It’s about as lightweight as it can get (especially when you factor in that these don’t use ice), and slips right into the spot between your center console and the dash thanks to its ergonomic design.

Key Features
  • Brushless motor stays extremely quiet, even after it’s been in use for hours on end
  • Twenty-six quart capacity for
  • Designed to adapt into your car’s cigarette lighter (110V plugs require additional purchase)
  • Keeps items cold as low as 36 F
  • Durable eight-foot cord
  • Carry-on handle design
Specification
  • Brand Igloo
  • Model 40358-P

Wagan’s take on a portable refrigerator leaves nothing to be desired. Twenty-four liters of space, a convenient folding carry handle, and a generous cord that lets you decide where to place this in your car. Wagan’s model also comes with our favorite feature, a hidden operations panel. Flip it up to use the hot or cold setting, and avoid the mistake of flipping a switch while in motion. We found some gent’s horrible story about how he kicked the switch on a different model while driving, and arrived at the beach with six cans of piping hot soda.

But Wagan’s innovative design doesn’t end there. The heating and cooling element is contained in the lid, which allows for faster dispersion to your contents. Heat rises, cold settles, and with Wagan, you don’t have a fan on the bottom that’s fighting against gravity. Last but not least, the range on this unit is fantastic. Anywhere from the freezing point of 32 F, all the way up to 140 F, which is perfect for maintaining hot food to nullify bacterial growth. A solid, inexpensive choice.

Key Features
  • Twenty-four liter capacity
  • Chills as low as 32 F, heats up to 140 F
  • Includes indicator light (helps prevent mistakes)
  • Includes swiveling handle
  • Hidden operations panel to prevent mishaps
Specification
  • Brand Wagan
  • Model EL6224
  • Weight 12.05 pounds

It’s a vertical car cooler, one that fits perfectly into those tight corridors in your car. You have to keep it ventilated properly, but the possibilities are still wide open compared to a standard cube-shaped car refrigerator. Apart from the unique design, you also get an adapter to plug into any standard 110V outlet. This lets you put food from the pan into a container, right in your unit, and you’re out the door. You get a heating temperature cap of 135 F, with cooling hitting as low as 40 F to properly refrigerate temp-sensitive food items.

The hull is made of temperature-treated plastic, keeping this 12V cooler nice and lightweight. Mix that with the fact that the heat vent and motor run at such a low, whisper-quiet noise level, and you’ve got the makings of a fantastic car cooler. As a heads up, you might have a little bit of trouble fitting this between the center console and the dash. That’s okay, because you get plenty of cord space to run this just about anywhere in your car.

Key Features
  • Slim design fits in nooks and crannies in your car
  • Folding handle clips into place
  • Temperature range of 40 F to 135 F
  • Includes adapter for 110V outlets in your home
  • Energy-efficient construction drains less of your car’s power
  • Quiet operation
Specification
  • Brand Koolatron
  • Model P20
  • Weight 5 pounds

This lightweight and portable refrigerator/freezer has a temperature range of 0-degrees Fahrenheit to 50-degrees Fahrenheit. It comes with a 12/24V DC connection cord, so you can easily plug it into the auxiliary power outlet in your vehicle. The fridge has a quick-chill function to cool your items quickly, and it can hold a total of 13 12-ounce cans. It’s 12.3 inches by 14.1 inches by 9.3 inches.

The unit has a memory function, which will save your presets when you turn the refrigerator off. It has a soft-touch control panel with a digital temperature display, and it comes with a shoulder strap for portability. It’s simple to set up, it draws very little power, and the items inside, including precooked meals, frozen meat, and ice cream, stay cold.

Key Features
  • Hits single digit temperatures
  • Convenient chill-ready cup holders
  • Holds 13 12-ounce cans
  • Low energy consumption rate for the power
  • Quick-chill function
Specification
  • Brand Dometic
  • Model CDF11-DC-A
  • Weight 19 pounds

In our quest to find the best car coolers in existence, we couldn’t ignore some of the more popular brands and see what they brought to the table. Black+Decker didn’t disappoint, and they followed suit with their excellent affordability. Sling this over your shoulder with the included strap to carry it from the house to your car: you’re going to need it, because this weighs just under twenty pounds. It’s a bit heavy, but Black+Decker get the job done.

Your temperature range goes from 40 F, up to 120 F, which is essentially good for keeping food warm, but not in safe level if you plan on driving for more than a few hours. You get a fairly decent 1.6 gallon capacity, lengthy power cable at just over six feet, and an adapter to bring it inside when the day is through and leave it plugged in on the countertop. After using this unit for a bit, we can say they definitely narrowed the temperature range to reduce cost, but for under fifty dollars, it’s a powerful car cooler that’ll last you for years.

Key Features
  • 1.6 gallon capacity
  • Runs from 40 F up to 120 F
  • 12V DC power adapter included for indoor and in-car use
  • Six-and-a-half foot power cable
  • Includes a convenient shoulder strap for easy transportation
Specification
  • Brand BLACK+DECKER
  • Model TC204B
  • Weight 19.8 pounds

This lightweight cooler/warmer chills drinks up to 32-degrees Fahrenheit and warms food up to 150-degrees Fahrenheit using thermoelectric technology. It holds six 12-ounce cans and features a removable shelf, self-locking latch, and an integrated Bluetooth speaker, so you can use it with an iPhone, Android, or other smart device to play music.

The cooler is insulated inside, so it holds temperatures for a while even after you unplug it. It is very versatile and can be used both on the road and at home. It comes with two power cords: an AC cord for wall outlets and a CD cord for the auxiliary outlet in your vehicle. The cooler is also ETL certified for safety and efficiency. Overall, it cools things down fairly quickly, keeps frozen items cold for a good amount of time, draws very little energy, and isn’t too loud.

Key Features
  • Holds up to six 12 oz cans
  • AC/DC power cables included
  • ETL certified for safety and efficiency
  • Temperature range from 32 F to 150 F in appropriate weather
  • Lightweight and portable
Specification
  • Brand Gourmia
  • Model GMF668
  • Weight 5.44 pounds

Koolarton gives you the most interior space for your money. You can store up to forty-eight standard 12 oz cans in here; it’s like having a miniature reach-in fridge, the only problem is finding somewhere to store it. You can take up the passenger floor space, or use the nine-foot cable to run it from the trunk to the cigarette lighter. If you’re looking for something to take to the beach with the whole family, the Voyager is just the ticket.

Apart from the massive size, you also get a broad temperature range for such a large unit. You can refrigerate, not just chill, down to 40 F, with the hot setting going up to 130 F. The latter is good to hold food for a ride home, but isn’t good for transporting hot food for more than a couple of hours. They’re able to keep the costs low thanks to the durable polypropylene construction, just note that scuffs and scrapes will show, but the internal system is built solid as a rock.

Key Features
  • Holds a whopping forty-eight standard 12 oz cans
  • Durable polypropylene construction
  • Temperature range as low as 40 F, and as high as 130 F
  • Nine-foot power cable for extended reach
Specification
  • Brand Koolatron
  • Model P27
  • Weight 13 pounds

Knox makes some of the best car coolers for overnight travel. You’ll get a mostly vertical chest-like design, which gives you up to thirty-four quarts of space to utilize. Knox Gear’s cooler also comes with a removable divider; fill it with drinks, or insert the divider to keep sandwiches from getting crushed. The price is a bit startling, because they could be charging more for this. You get some conveniences that more expensive units often have, like an LED indicator light.

They even include both cords. There are two separate outlets, so you don’t have to rely on adapters and the same cable. If the years went on and one of the cables get damaged, you can still pop an adapter onto the other, which lets this last a lot longer. There’s a locking handle, wide temperature range, and a quiet fan exhaust. There’s so much to this that it’s hard to pack into a few paragraphs: Knox Gear is an excellent product for the money spent, and works well for RV use as well.

Key Features
  • Includes AC/DC cables for indoor use
  • Thirty-four quart capacity
  • Removable divider helps keep food from getting crushed
  • Cools down to 40 F, heats up to 130 F
  • Locking handle and quiet fan exhaust
Specification
  • Brand Knox
  • Model KN-CCW34QB
  • Weight 13.6 pounds

Come on, you didn’t think we’d finish this list without Coleman, did you? The Coleman electric cooler comes with some serious power for a fantastic price. It’s built like an actual mini fridge, but still operates with thermoelectric power. You’ll get an eight-foot power cable to stash this in the trunk, and run the cord under the seats to the 12V cigarette lighter adapter. Remove the shelf divider to turn this into a forty-four can capacity cooler for the beach.

Coleman also throws in a one-year warranty, because with thermoelectric coolers, manufacturer defects will show themselves immediately. There’s a wide temperature range, fairly quiet motor operation, and an insane value on the price. If you’re still not sure what you’re looking for in an electric car cooler, keep on reading the buying guide below to get a feel for what you shoujld be looking for.

Key Features
  • Forty quart capacity
  • Eight-foot long power cable
  • Temperature range from 40 F to 130 F
  • Shelf divider can be adjusted
  • Includes a one-year limited warranty
Specification
  • Brand Coleman
  • Model 3000001497
  • Weight 18.2 pounds
Best Car Cooler & Refrigerator Buying Guide

We used the best car coolers, researched maintenance on your 12v fridge, and this is everything we learned in the process. Getting a plug-in cooler comes with massive benefits, but don’t forget that you’re buying a small appliance here. Keep an eye out for key features to ensure you’re getting the best car refrigerator for your needs.

portable freezer

Features to Look for When Buying a Car Cooler

  • Total Capacity

An electric cooler for car use should be able to fit enough for one person to get use out of it. You can always opt for higher capacities if you’re planning on using this when travelling with the kids. As a cautionary tale, some of these units come in sizes that only differ by two or four quarts of space, and upcharge 30% or more. Be on the lookout.

  • Indoor Use

Does it come with an indoor 12V DC adapter? Do you need to buy one separately, or is this not really a concern for you? You’ll get more out of your car fridge if you can also use it on the countertop. An entirely new world of possibilities opens up (important stuff, like a BYOB event where you want to keep them cold).

  • Temperature Range

You’ll want to look at this for both settings, if your unit comes with a heating feature as well. You’re not always going to find a unit that goes below 41 F (the top of the standard food safe range for storing cold food), and your heat functions might not go as high as you’d like. Pay attention to this, and remember that chilled and cold are two entirely separate things.

  • Noise

Most thermoelectric coolers are fairly quiet. At least, that’s what the label says. This is where user reviews are huge, because companies will hide behind listing technical information like a dB rating to pawn off the noise. Listen to customer reviews, and if you get stuff with a decibel explanation, note that 58-62 dB is the noise level of an average conversation between two people.

  • Warranty

There’s a thing about Murphy’s Law: it isn’t real, but it sure damn feels like it. Everyone knows somebody who had a dryer, fridge or dishwasher break within a very short time after the warranty expired. Even on small, inexpensive appliances like these, you should still have a good warranty backing you up.

Benefits of Using a Car Cooler or Refrigerator

  • Enjoying Hot or Cold Food at Work: Nobody wants to dig into cold soup, or a sandwich that feels just a little too warm for comfort. Most car coolers also have a heating function, which allows you to maintain a proper temperature that keeps food above bacterial growth levels.
  • Save Money: You’re not going to see the electricity that this uses on your home energy bill, but you will see a noticeable difference in your spending habits. We’re all guilty of hitting the drive-thru or spending money at a sit-down restaurant for lunch. I’ve even stopped at a burger place when the traffic is too bad, and then I spend money and wait it out. You can bring food with you, and forego the unnecessary transactions that chip away at your hard-earned cash.
  • Keep Insulin Cold: Nothing sucks more than being an insulin-dependent diabetic, and not having a place at work to keep your insulin. Truckers and drivers have been using car coolers for ages to keep their blood sugar in check while out on the road.
  • Healthy Snacks for the Kids: In the spirit of skipping the drive-thru, you can bring along healthy alternatives for your kids to eat on the road. They’re always asking for snacks, and this way, you can enjoy the rest of the ride in peace.
  • No More Soggy Food: This isn’t Labor Day weekend at your buddy Dave’s house. Pulling a cold brew out of an ice chest is part of the last weekend of summer, but when you’re just trying to keep your lunch from spoiling, nobody wants the wet mess that melting ice brings. You can keep your food cold without worrying about it getting ruined.

How Does a Plug-in Cooler for a Car Work?

These are compact enough to only use 12V of power. If you’re driving an older car or a compact vehicle (like a Corolla), the electrical system is simple enough that 12V for the car battery does fine. As long as the cooler you’re getting doesn’t exceed your car batteries voltage (which would be a highly unlikely scenario, but you never know), then you’ll be fine to use it. When you plug it into your adapter, it sends currents through two separate plates that alternate hot and cold outputs. You have a heat drain to remove the hot air that’s produced, effectively maintaining the cooler air in the unit, and that’s all there is to it.

red fridge

Electric Cooler Maintenance and Cleaning Tips

Thermoelectric coolers use the same technology that small wine coolers do. Maintenance is fairly easy, though replacements can be a bit costly. To upkeep your unit and enjoy it for years to come, follow these simple tricks and tips to maintain your unit.

  • Regular Dusting: Remove the casing of the unit, and you’re going to find dust. If you keep this in the car at all times, you should clear out the dust once every six months. One of the most common complaints with wine coolers, which use the same technology as thermoelectric coolers, is that dust build-up will force the heat drain to run hotter than usual. This leaves less room for your unit to cool down. Dust it 2-3 times per year, and you won’t notice a change in your temperature range.
  • Keep It Level During Cleaning: When it’s time to clean out the interior, don’t just jam a towel in there, twist it around and call it a day. The peltier plate is fairly fragile, and so we recommend keeping it level during cleaning. Bring it in, put it on the table and sit down during cleaning. You’ll also find that it comes out way cleaner with proper lighting.
  • Bring It Inside: If you keep it in the car, that’s okay, so long as you keep an eye on the weather forecast. Some of the models we covered don’t go below certain temperatures. To keep manufacturing costs low, these brands will ensure the materials can withstand the specific range. Nothing more, nothing less. If it’s going to dip into the single digits tonight and you’re using your car refrigerator’s warming function, don’t leave it in the car all night.

Best Car Coolers & Refrigerators FAQ:

Q: What is a Car Cooler/Refrigerator?

A: It’s a mini fridge for your car. These work for far more than just your car; you can use this to transport a cold lunch to work, to bring with you to a buddy’s house on game day (most of these are designed to hold a six-pack of cans). You can basically use these anywhere, but the ones we’ve chosen are ideal for car use based on their durability and compact size. Most of the units we’ve selected will come with the necessary 12V adapter to use with your car.

Car coolers also serve another purpose: keeping food warm. Most models will be thermoelectric, and most of those come with a warming function as well. Warmers usually run to at least 140 F degrees, though some run in ranges of 120 F to 160 F or more. The reason for this is that food safe levels were 140 F pre-2013, and have recently been changed to 135 F. This keeps bacteria from growing on your food while it stays warm.

Q: Can I Put Ice in an Electric Cooler?

A: Absolutely not. If you had a conventional mini fridge, that would be fine, but since we’re talking about thermoelectric coolers, you would ruin them. There’s something that’s called a peltier plate inside your unit that uses the thermoelectric power to cool everything down. When that gets wet, it can get damaged. If some condensation from the food you kept inside gets on the plate, wipe it off, but know that a few droplets aren’t going to destroy the whole thing.

If the ice is in a bag, if the ice is only going to be in there for a short while, it’s still not okay to store in your thermoelectric cooler. If you don’t have quality containers for items like soup, you also shouldn’t transport those. Keep liquid off the peltier plate, and you’ll be okay. We’d like to point out that if you look at many warranties on this product, they cover peltier plate (which may be referred to simply as a cooling plate) that fall into the category of manufacturer defect. If they can detect incompetence as the reason why the plate broke in the first place, the warranty might not cover you.

Q: How Cold Can a Thermoelectric Cooler Get?

A: This is where we get into the main differences in these refrigeration units. Most of these car coolers and refrigerators are going to be thermoelectric, meaning they don’t run off of coolant like the refrigerator in your house does. Instead, they’re far more susceptible to external conditions. Namely, the hotter out it is, the better a warming function will work; the colder out it is, the better the actual cooler will work (and will also operate using less electricity to hit the desired temperature).

It’s all going to depend on the temperature surrounding the cooler, and the quality of the cooler itself. If it’s built with a larger thermoelectric motor, it can achieve lower temperatures in a much more rapid fashion. Depending on the strength of your unit, your result will change. Let’s say that it’s 65 degrees out, for example. You could get our top pick, the Cooluli model, down to about 40 F, which is the minimum cooling temperature of this unit. If it’s 85 degrees out, you’re only going to get about 44 F as your minimum.

While we’ve tested these models ourselves, and thermoelectric engineering is a science, each unit will come with its own group of variables to factor in: motor size, acceptable temperature ranges (defined by the manufacturer and/or seller), and external elements. Does this mean thermoelectric coolers are too unpredictable? Certainly not. Since most standard refrigerators use coolant, they run into a different problem.

Coolant needs to be level. If it isn’t, it can cause inactionable results (such as the unit just plain not working), and potentially damage the unit. Coolant is viscous, and needs time to settle. If you were to buy a new deep freezer or fridge, you can’t plug it in the minute it’s delivered. Well, you can, but it’s not a good idea. Having a portable unit with coolant would cause it to move around far too much, and make it unreliable when you plug it in.

Q: How Effective is the Warming Function?

A: While some of these have an actual button that allows you to keep your food warm, the insulated interior of the unit is enough to keep carry-out food at a reasonable temperature. For actual warming functions, these are effective enough to maintain your food’s temperature for about 30-45 minutes without turning it soggy. Since the primary feature of your refrigerator is to keep things cold, the heating elements in these are fairly low-grade. There’s nothing wrong with that, but just remember that his is technically an added feature.

Your refrigerator uses coolant to keep things cold, while the heater will be pressed up against the housing, or the space on the interior of the fridge. It takes a while to warm the housing, and therefore your food as well.

Given the fact that it takes time to start up and doesn’t work the same as a separate heating unit would, they are effective for short distances, so long as you warm it up first. If you’re just looking to put food in an empty refrigerator unit to keep it warm until you get home, one that doesn’t have a heating function, it should maintain the temperature for about 15-20 minutes if the unit has been off.

On thermoelectric models that don’t have coolant, they are more effective at keeping things cold in weather that’s less than 70 degrees out, and better at keeping things warm if it’s 80 degrees or above. They can operate at just about any temperature, but since they don’t use coolant, the exterior temperature conditions do come into play.

drinks in a cooler

Our Top Pick 

Quite simply, it’s the best model you’re going to get for the money. Manufacturers look at their competition to competitively price products, and Cooluli understands that. They also understand that this is a luxury item, and should do more than serve a single purpose for the money you spend.

Cooluli’s mini fridge is also perfectly usable indoors, to bring to and from work (thanks to the lightweight build), and consumes a low level of power to keep it running. Comprehensive warranty, quality unit, all the trademarks of a company that knows what they’re doing, and a product that’s built to last for years to come.