The makers of the latest generation of premium halogen headlight bulbs—with over-the-top names such as Night Breaker Unlimited and X-tremeVision—promise to make driving at night much safer and easier. But these bulbs are expensive and offer limited benefits for only some types of drivers.
The bulbs, offered by well-known manufacturers such as GE, Philips, Osram and Sylvania, often are promoted as outshining standard halogen bulbs by 90% or more and illuminating dozens of feet farther down the road. But performance claims can be very misleading. In fact, Sylvania paid consumers $30 million and amended its advertising to settle a class action over false advertising for its premium bulbs.
Premium halogen headlight bulbs do have stronger light output than standard bulbs—but only by a maximum of about 19%, according to a Consumer Reports study. They also tend to provide a whiter light. These attributes can improve the clarity of what your headlights allow you to see, which can be helpful for older drivers who have trouble seeing at night and for drivers who regularly drive on unlit roads when tired. But just because premium bulbs burn brighter and whiter doesn’t mean that they throw the light significantly farther down the road. That depends, in part, on such factors as the design of your car’s headlight housing, reflectors and lenses. Premium bulbs typically cost $40 to $80 per pair, and they tend to burn out much sooner than standard bulbs, which cost $10 to $20 and have around a six-year life span.
To improve your current headlights: Clean and recondition the clear polycarbonate plastic lenses that cover most headlights. If they are five or more years old, these scratch-resistant lenses likely have become discolored or hazy from exposure to UV light, exhaust gases and road-debris impact. This damage can diminish the effectiveness of your existing bulbs by 50%. Many auto-service outlets can sand and polish polycarbonate lenses and coat them with a protective sealer—leaving them much clearer than before. Prices vary widely.