The dream of putting 200,000 miles on your vehicle – once restricted to an assortment of auto buffs and non-conformists willing to spend a small fortune on repairs -- is fast becoming a real possibility for millions of drivers..
Not so long ago, people counted themselves lucky if their car made it 100,000 miles before it gave out. As late as the 1980s and 1990s, many odometers didn’t even carry enough digits to handle 100k.
But to echo the hopeful baby boomer assertion that 60 is the new 40, one could say that 200,000 miles is the new 100,000 – thanks primarily to improvements in quality.
Consumers are embracing the idea if the statistical studies and the growing number of “high mileage” car clubs around the country are any indication.
One of the groups, the Allpar 200,000 Club, boasts 4,000 members. They consider it a point of pride to be able drive Chrysler products with more than 200,000 miles on them.
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Last year, the “Cash for Clunkers” program, designed to boost auto sales and get gas-guzzling vehicles off the road, showed just how high the age of cars, trucks and SUVs has risen.
The typical vehicle turned in under the program last year was 14 years old and averaged 160,000 miles, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
Since it took a bonus of $3,500 to $4,500 to persuade owners to turn these vehicles in, thousands of them would likely still be on the road and accumulating mileage if they hadn’t been scrapped.
Outside the bonus program, the average age of scrapped vehicles lately has been nearly as high as the “clunkers’” -- about 13 years, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
To some extent, tough economic conditions are leading consumers to hang onto their cars longer, said Lonnie Miller, vice president for marketing and industry analysis at R. L. Polk & Co., a publisher of automotive data. “People are cooling their jets on buying new vehicles.”
But the trend was underway well before the last downturn. Average vehicle age has climbed steadily for a decade, Miller notes, going from 8.8 years in 1999 to 10.6 years late last year.
He believes longer warranties and financing contracts are two key factors behind the trend, along with the higher vehicle quality.
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The longer life spans could be just the beginning. Many of the “clunkers” turned in for scrapping last year were manufactured in the mid-1990s. Experts expect longer life spans from the technologically advanced cars sold today.
Studies by J.D. Power & Associates, a consumer and product research firm, do suggest that cars are being built to last longer, Miller noted. In its latest dependability report, the firm said that overall performance of vehicles after three years of ownership was “at an all-time high.”
Between 2003 and 2010, average number of problems per 100 vehicles plummeted from 355 to 155 industry-wide, according to the company. Twenty-five of the 36 brands in the study showed improvement.
“I have a hard time criticizing any company that builds or sells a car in this country,” said Matt Keegan, publisher of two automotive web sites, theautowriter.com and autotrends.org. “The quality is so much higher than it used to be.”
In many cases, quality no longer varies substantially from one car brand to another either, said Erich Merkle, a Grand Rapids, Mich.-based auto analyst and publisher of the autoconomy newsletter.
“The Detroit 3 have improved to the point of taking that differentiator away from the Hondas and the Toyotas.” Owners have to be conscientious about maintenance, of course. In return, they get the chance to bring their future costs under control. With longer warranties to reduce their financial risks, Miller said consumers are poised to “steer their own automotive destinies.”
“If you are presented with good products, you have the opportunity to get some of your money back after your purchase. A car today can really last if you take care of it.”
Richard Kahn, the publisher of a Subaru website, www.subaruhighmileageclub.com, and owner of a New Hampshire landscaping company, pushed a ‘93 Legacy to 282,000 miles.
He changed engine oil every 5,000 miles, usually with synthetic oil. “I don't ignore little noises. I have them addressed right away.
"It helps to have a solidly built vehicle to begin with. But if it is properly maintained even an unreliable vehicle can probably do better than a solidly built vehicle if you neglect the maintenance."
After 13 years on the road, his Legacy was a bit rusty but it still ran. Kahn was able to trade it in on a new Subaru Impreza WRX. "If I had known that I could have bought replacement body panels, I probably would still have it."
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"I don't believe in letting things die," he said. "Quite frankly, I don't like the whole new-car car buying process" Kahn launched subaruhighmileageclub.com in 2000. He says nearly 1,000 Subaru owners use the site, which includes a forum where they can trade tips on keeping their cars running.
Most owners would rather not drive their vehicles into oblivion, of course. The average driver keeps a new vehicle nearly 6 years -- up from about four and one-half years in 2002, according to R.L. Polk figures. Then it is sold once or twice, on average, over its lifetime.
Even if owners aren’t out to set mileage records, careful adherence to maintenance schedules pays off in a higher resale value.
“If you do the recommended maintenance, you will be selling a car that should still be in good condition after 100,000 miles or higher,” Keegan said.
The trend toward greater vehicle longevity is not hopeful sign to everyone. Efforts to improve fuel economy and reduce emissions could falter if consumers hang onto cars with older technology for years.
And the auto industry naturally would like to see people tire of repairing their vehicles.
In 2009, consumers stayed away from dealerships in droves, with consequences that were disastrous to the industry and communities dependent on it. New car sales fell to less than 9 million units a year, compared to more than 17 million in its heyday.
Merkle said it may take several years to reach 16 million units a year or more. But he expects automakers to rely on new technologies and designs to lure owners out of their aging sheet metal.“Many people don’t buy new vehicles because they need to,” Merkle said. “They buy them because they want to.”