DETROIT — More people are keeping their cars longer for fear of going into debt or losing their jobs.
R.L. Polk & Co., an auto industry data analysis firm, says the median age of the American ride rose to a record 9.4 years in 2008.
If you do decide to stretch out the life of your car, here are some things to consider.
Just how long you can or should keep your vehicle varies with the make, model and the care put into it during its life, says Thomas Sewell, owner of Sewell Auto Care in Canton, Ga.
The Detroit Three, General Motors, Chrysler and Ford, are battling the perception that their cars don't last as long as those made by Japanese automakers, mainly Honda and Toyota. Although the Detroit brands have improved, many mechanics believe that you have a better chance of racking up miles on a Japanese car without too much trouble.
"The Japanese have a good head start on them, unfortunately for the domestics' sales," says Danny Beiler, part owner of an auto repair garage in Sarasota.
Sewell has seen owners extend the life of their car well over 300,000 miles with little trouble. But as vehicles age, the risk of a costly repair increases.
Automatic transmissions can fail after 150,000 miles. Manual transmissions will need clutches earlier, although a replacement clutch is far less expensive than a new or rebuilt transmission.
Engines also can fail, costing $3,000 or $4,000, says Sewell. When you face a costly repair on a high-mileage car, it's best to decide with your mechanic whether it's worth it.
"You reach a point where you have to weigh the options," says Sewell.
Simple steps can extend your vehicle's life
Here are four tips to help you make your ride last longer and avoid the pitfalls of pouring money into an old car.
Watch the fluids. Oil, antifreeze, transmission and brake fluids are the lifeblood of your car. Check frequently as your car ages. Some mechanics recommend checking every time you fill up with gasoline. If fluid levels drop too low, it can cause long-term damage to your engine.
Look for spots. If you have an oil or other fluid leak, you'll likely see small spots on the pavement beneath the hood. If you see a spot, check the fluids to make sure they're at the right levels. If the spots persist, get the car to a mechanic. "You should definitely get it looked at before it turns into something bigger," says Sewell.
Follow the manufacturer's maintenance schedule. Michael Tschetter of Parker, Colo., has three cars with more than 150,000 miles on them and plans to keep two of them for several more years. He says the recommended maintenance of changing belts, flushing fluids, replacing filters and swapping out spark plugs can be expensive, but it will cost you more to put it off. Tschetter said he put $2,500 into his 2000 Honda Accord when it crossed 100,000 miles, even though it had no apparent problems. The investment, he says, has paid off. His car now has 153,000 miles and "runs like the day you drove it off the lot."
Work with a trustworthy mechanic. Visiting a reliable mechanic for things like fluid checks helps in many ways. The more a good mechanic sees your car, the more likely they are to catch small problems before they become big.