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How to live past 150,000 (miles, that is)

Twelve tips to help you keep your car running forever

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1993 Honda Accord

My 1993 Accord: 125,000 miles and still going strong

Photo © Aaron Gold

Improvements in technology, build quality and metallurgy mean that cars are living longer and longer, even in the Rust Belt. Not just Japanese cars, either -- domestics and Europeans are giving reliable service up to, and well past, 150,000 miles. With proper care and feeding, virtually any car can be kept on the road as long as the owner wants to keep it. Here are twelve guidelines to keeping your car alive well into six-figure territory.

  • Buy a good car to begin with. Though Japanese cars are generally the most reliable, don't dismiss American cars -- their quality is improving and they are often less expensive to repair. European cars are generally the most expensive to fix. It's a good idea to do some online research or talk to owners of similar cars about their experiences.
  • Follow the maintenance schedule in your owner's manual. If your car has a "maintenance minder", use that as a guideline for service, but be sure to double-check your owner's manual as some items need to be replaced based on time rather than mileage. Don't forget the timing belt! Most cars need to have the timing belt replaced every 60,000 to 90,000 miles. It's not cheap, but it’s far less expensive than the damage it will cause if it breaks.
  • Keep a repair fund. Cars do break, and there's nothing like a $1,500 repair bill to scare an old-car owner into the new-car showroom. Remember, your car would have to generate repair bills of around $5,000 per year for at least four years in a row to even approach the cost of a new car. In place of your payment, put $100 or $200 per month into an interest-bearing car-repair account. That way an unexpected repair or major maintenance won't bust your budget.
  • Do your homework. Many cars have known problems that pop up under certain circumstances or after enough mileage/time. Most makes and models have Web sites and forums devoted to them; they can be a gold mine of information. Knowing your car is prone to a given problem isn't necessarily cause to get rid of it; it just allows you to be prepared.
  • Be aware. Be on the lookout for new noises, strange smells or anything that just doesn’t feel right. If something seems amiss, talk to your mechanic or dealership. Don't let them tell you "that's normal" -- if you've been driving your car long enough, you know best what normal is.
  • Ask a friend to drive. Every two or three months, ask a friend to take you for a drive in your car. Some problems appear or increase so gradually that you may not even notice them, but they'll stick out like a sore thumb to someone less familiar. And by riding in the passenger's seat, you may spot something you missed while preoccupied with driving.
  • Fix everything as soon as it breaks. If you're going to keep your car as long as possible, you have to want to keep it as long as possible. Don't ignore seemingly unimportant problems like broken trim, torn upholstery, or electrical glitches. Little annoyances add up and can begin to erode your love affair with your old car.
  • Use quality replacement parts. Whether or not to use genuine manufacturer parts is open to debate, but don't just opt for the least expensive parts you can find. Discuss options with your mechanic or parts store. If a non-wearing part is damaged, consider buying a used replacement -- you'll get manufacturer quality at a more affordable price.
  • Keep it clean. Paint does more than make your car look good; it protects the materials underneath. Wash your car regularly. When water no longer beads on the paint, wax it. (Read more: How to wash and wax and detail your car like the pros.)
  • Fight rust. If you live where it snows, be sure to wash the car regularly -- but only if the temperature is above freezing. (Below freezing the salt stays in solution and won't harm the car.) Don't park in a heated garage; melting snow allows embedded salt to attack. Make sure your car wash does not recycle their water -- otherwise they're just spraying your car with salt from other people's vehicles. (Check out my four-season guide to preventing rust).
  • Drive gently. There's no need to baby your car; in fact, a little foot-to-the-floor acceleration every once in a while is a good thing, but driving like a wannabe Michael Schumaker in his Formula 1 Ferrari isn't good for your car (or your nerves).
  • Gloat! If you enjoy the surprised looks people give you when you tell them your car has 150,000 miles on it, wait until you see their faces at 250,000. If people chide you about your old wheels, chide them about their car payments and higher insurance rates. Keeping your car as long as possible saves you hundreds of dollars per month; keeping it in good repair minimizes the environmental impact by ensuring that it runs cleanly and efficiently as possible. Feel free to gloat -- you and your car have earned it!

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