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How Long Should a Car Last?

By Autolist Editorial | May 11, 2021

Many modern vehicles can last up to or even past 200,000 miles, according to automotive experts. Today's cars, SUVs, and trucks are more durable than ever and require less maintenance to run correctly, which has boosted the average age of a car on the road in the United States to nearly 12 years old. There have been considerable improvements in the reliability and durability of major components, even with all the built-in technology.

Still, following regular maintenance schedules and addressing typical wear and tear is essential to keeping a car in good working order and getting it to last a long time.

A Car's Lifespan Depends on You

Certain cars are still made better than others. Automakers like Toyota and Honda have built a reputation for producing reliable and long-lasting vehicles. Similarly, Chevrolet and Ford are well-known for making long-lasting trucks. For example, the Toyota Camry consistently tops reliability surveys from outlets such as Consumer Reports. As a brand, Toyota was ranked third overall in the publication's 2020 reliability survey conducted with owners.

But the lifespan of every car is still affected by how well the vehicle is maintained. Even the best-made vehicle won't last very long without regular car maintenance such as oil changes and replacement of worn parts. While some owners ditch their old car for a new one when a repair becomes prohibitively expensive, it's becoming more common to see vehicles driven daily that are 15, 20, or 25 years old — or even older. It isn't just random luck that these cars are still running, but rather the fact that they were well-maintained from day one.

Mileage Matters

Most industry experts, including vehicle history report company Carfax, estimate Americans drive an average of 15,000 miles per year.

Although it's not uncommon to see cars with odometer readings above 200,000 miles, it's still more of an exception, not a rule. Compared to cars from a few decades ago, though, today's vehicles last longer.

That's mainly because parts on today's cars can take more wear and tear than they were even 20 years ago. Less need for replacement parts translates to fewer repairs needed and lower costs for overall maintenance and car upkeep.

Make Your Car Go the Distance With Regular Car Maintenance

From tune-ups to tire rotations, checking vital fluids like coolant, changing out worn brake pads, and getting regular oil changes, maintenance is essential to the lifespan of a car.

Every manufacturer includes a recommended service interval guide with new cars. It's also available from a dealership or online. But it breaks down the items that should be checked and how often on a specific vehicle. That schedule must be followed regardless of where the car gets serviced or if you do the work yourself. Because in addition to regular oil changes, cars need regular fluid checks, lubrication of various parts, and even more significant repairs such as for a timing belt.

If you've been lax with repairs or are the owner of a used car with an unclear history, there's still time to establish a strict maintenance timeline and find the service schedule.

Most vehicles with proper care should make it at least 100,000 miles. Getting to the 200,000-mile mark might take a little more doing, such as having a well-known reliable vehicle and being willing to make a few high-end repairs.

Avoid overlooking the importance of a clean engine. Once annually, et your engine cleaned to remove contaminants such as sludge, dirt, and grime that can affect a car's temperature and put a strain on its combustion and fuel systems, resulting in overall reduced longevity. Putting off minor repairs or ignoring your intuition that something is amiss— such as a hesitation when you accelerate, an odd feeling behind the wheel, or an unusual smell — can lead to more trouble later.

Although it's tempting to dismiss, that Check Engine light is on for a reason. You might drive thousands of miles with it on, but the presence of an indicator light indicates an issue with the vehicle. It's essential to determine the cause of the problem that's triggered this warning light to go on because a Check Engine light is a catch-all for various issues relating minor sensor issues to expensive mechanical repairs.

Remember that today's check-up or tune-up can help you avoid any surprise problems with your car and hopefully stave off damage before it becomes significant. But in addition to keeping a vehicle running in optimal condition for as long as possible, proving that the regular maintenance was performed as scheduled will add to the vehicle's resale value.

Choosing a Reliable Car

Some car manufacturers have a reputation for making longer-lasting cars than others, and various owner surveys track this information. The annual J.D. Power Vehicle Dependability Study follows the quality of three-year-old vehicles, with this year's study evaluating 2018 model year vehicles. For 2021, Lexus ranked at the top, Porsche came in second, Kia was third, Toyota pulled in the fourth position, and Cadillac and Buick tied for the fifth-most-reliable brand, while Jaguar and Land Rover models landed at the bottom.

Also, look at Consumer Reports and its annual reliability survey, where its members receive questionnaires on individual models over several years and brands receive a ranking. Mazda, Lexus, and Toyota were the top brands, but some models had more problems than the average vehicle of a similar age even among those names. Their advice is usually to avoid buying a car in its first model year or just after a significant update. Build quality issues are often prevalent with early batches of new vehicles, while software issues can require a series of updates to resolve problems.

When to Use the Severe Use Schedule

In your manual or on the manufacturer site, you might notice that there's a separate maintenance schedule for severe use. Severe use doesn't just mean towing, hauling, or going off-road a lot. It includes driving in very hot climates, frigid climates, stop-and-go traffic, or making many short trips. These factors are harder on your vehicle than driving in a temperate environment, mainly on the freeway. If these situations sound like your driving, then you might consider following the severe-use schedule to make your car last longer.

Don't Go Cheap on the Parts

Another way to help your car last longer is to use quality fluids and parts. Low-quality or incorrect engine oil and filters or the wrong transmission fluid could cause more expensive repairs and higher operating costs in the long run.

The same goes for generic and cheap parts. They may not fit as well on your car, and they're likely to wear out a lot faster. Instead, try to replace any worn parts with parts directly from the automaker or a well-known and reputable brand. In some cases, brands from outside suppliers and specialists could be better than the equipment that came with the car. Look through enthusiast sites for advice on parts for the vehicle, and you might find out what other drivers are using with good results.

Use the Right Gas

Another element where you want to splurge or at least not go the cheapest route is the required gas type. Some vehicle manufacturers, especially from more prestigious brands like BMW and Mercedes-Benz, explicitly state that their vehicles require premium gas, owing to their high compression ratios. Not using premium gas in a car that needs it could cause performance issues and eventual damage.

Some vehicles say that premium gas is recommended, which means you're still safe using regular gas as it has sensors to compensate for it. On the other hand, if your vehicle calls for regular gas, you won't get any better fuel economy or performance bump from using premium.

Pay Attention to Your Vehicle

Get into the habit of periodically checking under the hood every to make sure everything is in order. Look for leaks, smells, corrosion, or anything that is visibly worn or broken. When you're driving, pay attention to unusual noises, smells, or feelings. If your car starts behaving differently, don't ignore it. Either take it to a repair shop or check it out yourself. Catching a problem in the early stages could save you money on a repair later.

How Long Do People Keep Their Cars Anyway?

On average, owners keep their new vehicles for six years, especially since six-year auto loans have become increasingly common in recent years. New car buyers tend to move onto a new car after paying it off, or a new car model hits dealer lots. But that doesn't mean it's reached the end of its lifecycle.

According to IHS Markit, the average age of all vehicles on the road today is nearly 12 years as of 2020, and a quarter of those are now at least 16 years old. While a car with 100,000 miles was considered nearing the end of its life as recently as the 1990s, it's increasingly common to see cars with high mileage in good working order and on the used car market.

Buying a brand new or used car is usually the second-most expensive thing people buy during their lives aside from a house. New car prices have also risen dramatically over the years, yet consumers have increasingly viewed cars as relatively disposable. With longer financing terms, it's increasingly important to keep a vehicle in working order and pick one with a reputation for reliability to go at least a year without needing a new car and another monthly payment.

One Reason People Move On: Advancements

People often decide to move on from their older cars boils down to the advances in technology starting to show up in quick succession. These include changes to passive and active safety features, advanced driver assistance systems, and updates to in-car convenience features and infotainment functions.

Some vehicles from as recently as 15 years ago only came standard with two airbags. Some lacked anti-lock brakes, and most didn't have stability control. Federal motor vehicle safety standards have required the addition of side, side curtain, and even knee airbags as standard equipment. Stability control and anti-lock brakes became standard on cars from the 2012 model year and a backup camera from May 2018.

While some older vehicles offered backup cameras, navigation systems, and even adaptive cruise control, advances in these systems have made them more useful. What were once luxury gimmicks on higher-end cars are helpful features on more mainstream models, and they're well worth consideration.

Choosing a Long-Lasting Car

If you're looking to buy a car and then forget about car shopping for a long, long time, then you need to make sure that you choose a car that will last. Consider these things:

  • Look for a new car with some driver assistance features such as automatic emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring, and lane-departure warning. Automatic emergency braking will be standard on all cars in the next couple of years, and other similar assists might not be far behind. While there's no substitute for being an alert driver, these systems can mitigate some crashes.

  • Choosing a car with a vehicle management system. This type of onboard tool extends the lifespan of your vehicle by continually diagnosing the health of the car, providing driving analyses such as braking force and speed, and ensuring that you stay up to date on your car's maintenance schedule.

  • Finding a great mechanic. A good mechanic is a godsend for you and your car. Today's vehicles have complex electronic components and computers that require service by qualified technicians. Choose a mechanic who is certified to work on your particular vehicle. A dealership mechanic often fits the bill.

  • Opting for a car with an extended warranty. Offsetting the cost of repairs with a warranty makes it easier to get things fixed instead of putting problems off until later, thus increasing your car's life expectancy.

Sure, cars last longer now than ever before, but no car lasts forever. How you treat your car, from the fluids you put in it to how regularly you have it serviced, can all play a part in how long it (and how well) it serves your needs. With luck and by following some of the tips above, you can add to the lifespan of your vehicle so you can enjoy it for years to come.