Best Electric Coolers for the Car, Tested - Car and Driver

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Best Electric Coolers for the Car, Tested - Car and Driver

Keeping food and drinks cold is an essential aspect of any tailgate, road trip, or potluck convoy. Whether it's a salad or some adult beverages, you don't want to be that person who brings lukewarm refreshments. But sometimes, just a regular ice chest won't cut it.

Enter portable electric coolers. An electric cooler can keep food and drinks chilled and even frozen, no ice required. They're extremely handy for road trips, car camping, hunting trips, and more.

There are two main types of portable electric coolers: thermoelectric and compressor. Thermoelectric coolers can often heat the contents too, but they won't get your food down to freezing temps. Compressor coolers can get food and drink to freezing, but they're often heavier.

So which one do you choose? The first step is establishing why you need a portable electric cooler. If you just want something to keep sandwiches edible on a road trip, thermoelectric is just fine. If you need to freeze fresh meat after a hunting trip or keep frozen food frozen until you arrive at your destination, you'll want a compressor cooler.

For this test, we picked out seven of the top portable electric coolers on the market. We collected both objective and subjective data on a variety of parameters to arrive at our conclusions. Bear in mind that most of these coolers are available in multiple sizes, so our notes on internal size are more for general storage expectations.

Without further ado, here are our Electric Cooler picks.

We used a combination of practical observations and hard data for this test. Using an army of Bluetooth thermometers, boxes of evenly sized soda and beer cans, and an average-size Kia Sorento, we set to work. Here are the parameters we tested:

Upon gathering our data and testing notes, we set to work deciding which coolers were the best for certain situations. Here are our picks for the best electric coolers.

The electric car coolers/freezers in this test vary wildly in price, but this Alpicool 48-quart entry held its own against the more expensive options. It boasts a healthy capacity, holding 59 soda cans (without the internal basket). The cooler comes with 12-volt and 120-volt power cords, so you can pre-cool it at home, keep it cooling on the road, and plug it in when you arrive at your destination.

The Alpicool didn't get as cold as some of the others we tested (see graph below), but it was definitely cold enough to keep frozen items frozen. This is a great choice.

For most of us, this 28-quart cooler from Igloo nailed the sweet spot. The thermoelectric powerplant provides cooling power to 36 degrees Fahrenheit below the ambient temperature and can also heat the inside up to 136 degrees Fahrenheit. This flexibility allows you to keep cold things cold and hot things hot. It’s the best of both worlds.

The Igloo lacks a freezer function, but the attractive price point reflects that. The design isn’t anything impressive, but it’s what Igloo is known for: functional and durable. The small size is perfect for road trippers and truckers—it fits just about anywhere in the vehicle, even the front floorboard—and the price is undeniably great, which is why we picked it as the Best Compact Electric Cooler. We wish it had an alternate power source besides its 12-volt cig-lighter plug, but there are plenty of affordable DC to AC adapters available at Amazon.

One of the industry leaders in portable cooling and refrigeration, Dometic is renowned for its RV air conditioners. That said, if you want to splurge on a top-of-the-line electric cooler/freezer to take along in your car or truck, this is the one you want. It reached the coldest temps in our test (see graph below) by a good margin. It's extremely well built, featuring spring-loaded handles, an easy-to-use interface, and a sturdy hinge.

Temperature control is accessible through an app, and the option to power it by a separate solar panel opens it up for use off the grid. Yes, it's pricey, but well worth the money.

If you're looking for a great deal on a portable electric car freezer, you've found it. We really liked the compact size of the BougeRV; its dimensions are ideal for road trips in small cars. (Again, most of these portable coolers come in multiple sizes; which one you need is up to you.) As far as performance, the BougeRV was comparable with our Best Budget Cooler listed above but came up just short with its insulation; once unplugged, it lost its internal temp just a tad faster than the Alpicool. But it costs about a hundred bucks less, and Alpicool doesn't make a model that's this compact.

A fantastic option for a road-trip freezer, it performed well in our vehicle space test; it'll fit just about anywhere. If you need to keep frozen items from melting in a compact space, this is the portable cooler to get.

The Anker EverFrost 40L is unlike any other cooler on this list. In addition to being able to be plugged into your vehicle for cooling on the road, it also features a built-in 299Wh battery that can power the cooler even when it’s unplugged.

This means you can keep your items chilling even when your car is turned off without draining your vehicle’s battery. It also means you can take the cooler to a tailgate party or beach and keep your food and drinks cold all day long. How long the removable battery can power the cooler varies greatly based on ambient temperature, the temperature you set it to, and whether or not it was pre-chilled beforehand while plugged into the wall or vehicle, but with an ambient temperature of 78-degrees, our EverFrost unit kept 65 cans at 36-degrees for around 32 hours.

When plugged into a standard AC wall outlet, the unit took just 28 minutes to get from 71-degrees to 32-degrees using its integrated compressor. When doing the same test with battery power, it took 36 minutes and used 26-percent of the battery. So, if you want to maximize how long the battery will last, be sure to pre-chill it using power from your vehicle or wall outlet.

Speaking of power, the battery can charge through USB-C and a 100W XT-style connection. This XT connector will work with the car charger, wall charger, and even solar panels with the appropriate output or adapter. Anker sells its own solar panels, but any brand should work so long as you convert it to the appropriate male XT connector. The battery will also charge passively via the car and wall charging input that’s on the bottom of the cooler.

Other cool features include extra USB-A and USB-C charging ports on the battery for charging your mobile devices, as well as a fold-out “EasyTow” handle that doubles as a surface for cutting or holding items.

We tested the 40L model, but there’s also a smaller 30L model and a larger dual-zone 50L model with two areas that can be independently cooled.

If you're looking for a larger thermoelectric cooler, this one from Coleman worked really well. It's about a third larger than the Igloo for just a bit more money. Better yet, it can be stored with the lid up (like in the photo) or on its side with the lid facing out, like a mini-fridge. Note, though, that it's not a freezer.

If you want the heating and cooling abilities of a thermoelectric cooler with a bit more internal space, this is the one to get.

For the tailgater who wants to bring all the goodies, this 80-quart Bodega beast is our pick. Featuring two internal zones that can be independently controlled, it's the ultimate extra-large electric cooler/freezer. The 80-quart combined capacity is handy too, allowing us to cram in 102 soda cans.

This cooler/freezer won't be for every driver, as the size makes it unwieldy and difficult to store. But if you have the room, it's the perfect tool to transform a tailgate party.

Managing the temptation to test these coolers by drinking beer around the fire was our biggest challenge during this test. But to maintain our quest for objective data for your purchasing needs, we opted for thermometers, a Kia Sorento, and some same-size beverage cans (unopened).

When considering the parameters for our cooler test, we used the following parameters:

Using the Govee Home Thermometer System, we ran our first test on cooling and efficiency. Assigning each cooler a thermometer, we started each at 71 degrees and turned each to its lowest setting, measuring the time it took to get there. The Govee app provides exportable data, demonstrating both the cooling and insulation properties of each unit, allowing us to build this handy graph.

To determine the baseline behavior, we measured cooling and insulation while empty. As a note, all of these manufacturers suggest priming the cooler—cooling them the night before any big road trip with a 120-volt AC power cord (if you need one, such as with the Igloo, you can buy an adapter here), then maintaining the cold with your car's 12-volt DC car plug.

Next, we pulled out Car and Driver's Kia Sorento to investigate the size and storage for each unit. Starting with the trunk and moving forward, we checked each row of seats and the cargo hold for possible easy-access storage space. Lastly, we verified the manufacturer's capacity claim, testing just how many standard 12-ounce soda cans fit into each cooler.

During our tests, our team moved these coolers around . . . a lot—giving us a great idea of just how these coolers adapt in real-life situations. Finally, we took notes on design features like portability, the handles, the wheels, interior baskets or accessories, and whether or not each was cumbersome to haul.

Capacity: Consider the size of your electric cooler. You'll want to ensure that your selection can adequately fit the amount of food and beverages you need for your trip.

Power Source: Electric coolers typically operate on AC power, DC power, and/or an external source like a power pack. Sometimes all three! Consider what your trip will look like and the power sources you have available.

Portability: Look for features like carrying handles, low weight, wheels, and a compact design, making your cooler easy to transport.

Thermoelectric vs. Compressor: Compressor coolers work in any outside temperature, but thermoelectrics are severely affected by it. The hotter the ambient temp, the worse the performance. This is why most thermoelectric cooler manufacturers don't provide a maximum cooling temp—it's defined by the ambient temperature. If you want your thermoelectric cooler to work the best, make sure it's operating away from any ambient heat.

To that end, if you live in a hot, arid environment, or are driving through one on your road trip, avoid thermoelectric coolers altogether—unless you plan on using yours within the vehicle cabin and not in the trunk or truck bed.

Temperature Control: Many electric coolers have built-in temperature-control features allowing you to adjust and maintain desired cooling levels. Some coolers (usually thermoelectric models) have a single cold setting that keeps items cool, but not at a customizable temperature setting.

Additional features: Some coolers offer additional features that can enhance convenience such as removable dividers, built-in lights, and integrated USB ports for charging devices. Consider these extra features based on your specific needs.

A portable electric cooler is a smaller appliance that keeps food and drinks cold (and sometimes warm). They can be plugged into a 120-volt AC wall outlet, the 12-volt cigarette lighter outlet in your car, and/or to a portable power source. Each model will have different power sources, so research your needs and pick up an adapter or power inverter if you need to.

To get the best out of your electric cooler, you should prime it the night before your trip. Plug it into your 120-volt wall outlet and begin the cooling process. Once it's down to your desired temperature, transfer refrigerated items into the cooler. This way, your portable cooler is maintaining a cold temperature, which is far more efficient and uses less power than cooling down items.

Compressor coolers use the same technology as your home refrigerator, cooling through a series of compressed air and refrigerants. They are definitely more effective in cooling and are ideal for drivers who need to keep items at a consistent temperature.

Thermoelectric coolers use "solid-state cooling," meaning there is no compressor or refrigerants. It uses the transfer of heat or cold through solid metal to run the device. Thermoelectric cooling is incredibly effective, but it does depend on the ambient temperature in which the cooler is operating. For example, if you are trying to run your cooler in the middle of the desert sun, the solid metal plate may have a hard time cooling since the original transfer begins at such a high temperature.

Not really. Some electric coolers can produce a low humming sound when in use.

Yes, a 12-volt DC power outlet can power most electric coolers—but be sure to check what the product offers.

Yes, but be mindful that the cooler is powered by your car's battery. Run it too long, and the car's battery might drain completely. Luckily, many electric coolers produce a "low voltage" alert, which lets you know when the vehicle's battery is getting dangerously low.

This is dependent on many factors, such as ambient temp, insulation, and contents. In general, as long as your cooler is plugged in, it will remain cool. An unplugged cooler, however, will lose temperature at different rates.

Some electric coolers have a freeze function that can lower the temperature inside the cooler below the freezing point.

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Visit our Tested & Trusted page to see the very best in automotive gear. Read more about our product testing and evaluation process here.

Katherine Keeler is an Assistant Testing Editor at Hearst Autos. By day she evaluates tools for your enjoyment; by night, she Frankenstein’s her ever changing fleet of rust-bucket-oddities back to repair. Her dream is to open a roadside attraction where the public can view, drive, and learn repairs at her emporium of curious cars.

Collin Morgan is an Associate Commerce Editor at Hearst Autos, where the former Rust Belt mechanic and gadget enthusiast presents the best gear for your automotive endeavors.

Gannon Burgett loves cameras, cars, and coffee: a perfect combination for his Hearst Autos work. His byline has appeared in USA Today, Gizmodo, TechCrunch, Digital Trends, the Detroit Free Press, and more.

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Best Electric Coolers for the Car, Tested - Car and Driver

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