If you have an older or a generally unfancy car, an easy way to modernize it is to change out its incandescent interior light bulbs for LEDs. LEDs offer much more brightness and use less power than regular filament bulbs. They also look cool and super crisp. There are cheap ones, pricy ones, and plenty in between. Here’s how to decide which to get.
(For the purposes of this post, we’re only discussing interior bulbs. Dome lights, door lights, and map lights, cargo lights, and such. We’ll revisit exterior bulbs for your headlights and tail lights another time.)
LED direct-replacement bulbs have come a long way in the 15 years or so that they’ve been readily available. Here’s what you can get now.
- Unbranded/no-name bulbs on Amazon and eBay (very cheap, a myriad of color and size options available)
- Lower-tier branded ones from labels like Dorman and Pilot you see at parts stores (fewer colors, generally slightly better build quality than online orders and only slightly more expensive or cheaper)
- Known brand ones that cost a lot, from established lighting companies like Osram, Philips, PIAA, Sylvania (minimal colors, only common sizes available, noticeably nicer build quality)
The pricing delta between cheap ones and premium branded ones is immense. Pricing out bulbs for the cab of my Montero SUV, I easily found sellers offering the “3175” size I needed for as low as $1.50 apiece. And yet, knowing this, I still paid about $9 apiece for 3175 bulbs made by Philips.
Ironically, I actually came to this conclusion after watching a YouTube video that shows off how much brighter a cheap no-name LED bulb appeared to be than an expensive brand-name one. This screenshot makes it pretty clear. The cheap one’s on the left:
But you can peep the whole video if you’d like:
After a little more research and looking at more reviews, it became clear to me that many people were coming to the same conclusion as “Mike” in this clip: the cheapo bulbs yield as-good or better brightness as the brand-name ones for way less money.
But to me, increasing brightness in your interior light bulbs has diminishing returns. For one thing, any LED you’re going to order now will be far brighter than a factory incandescent bulb. For another, there is absolutely such a thing as “too bright” when it comes to illuminating your car’s cabin. You want to be able to see when you open your car door, you don’t want to be blinded with light glaring off every shiny surface. Plus, excessively bright LED bulbs look dumb in housings designed for incandescents as they put a huge hot spot right in the middle.
My objective in fitting LED interior lights was to make my Mitsubishi feel a little classier, more upscale, “more premium” as car company press releases like to say. To me, the higher-end bulb was far and away the superior choice in accomplishing that goal.
Simply put, the expensive bulbs look more seamlessly integrated into the vehicle’s interior design. They’re also more consistent with each other and their advertised coloring, which is expressed as temperature in lights. The cheap ones are more obvious as retrofits. Here’s how the Philips 3175 “6000K” bulbs look in the dome, cargo, and door lights of my Montero:
That pure, cool white just looks more professional to me than the blue-tinged dazzling light I’ve seen in cheaper bulbs.
If you’re just looking for max brightness for your bucks, the cheap ones are clearly where it’s at. I’ve seen enough reports to reason that reliability’s not really going to be an issue. And even if your $1 dome light bulb dies... whatever.
If you’re into elegance though, and I can’t imagine I’m the only one who is, the expensive bulbs are appreciably cleaner-looking. Even though they’re much more money than unlabeled bulbs, it’s still an inexpensive upgrade.
- SuperBrightLEDs sells the cheap kind of bulbs, but not only that, the site has a great tool for figuring out which ones fit in various locations around your vehicle.
- Diode Dynamics is the only outfit I’ve found in my research that sells premium bulbs in interesting colors. It’s also a U.S. company several people I know have a favorable opinion of. I’ve just ordered some red bulbs from it for my map lights and will leave a comment on this post regarding their performance when they arrive.
- Some LED bulbs will be listed with the same part number as your incandescent bulbs, but be wary, they’re not always exactly the same size. Ideally, find a seller that can give you the exact dimensions of the LED bulb you’re looking at. You might have to bend your factory housing a little to make LEDs fit, but that shouldn’t be a big deal.
Good luck, and let there be light! I’m looking forward to seeing some accounts and pictures of peoples’ LED interior lighting retrofits in the comments here.