The average age of cars on the road today is higher than ever — nearly 11 years old, according to research firm R.L. Polk. That’s partially a function of a slow economy, but also, Polk says, because vehicles are “more durable and more reliable than their predecessors.”
With the average car adding more than 15,000 miles to the odometer each year, it’s practically a given that you’ll hit the once-notable milestone of 100,000 miles. In fact, you might even triple that without needing a big-dollar repair, such as a new engine or transmission. Reaching those loftier targets requires some input from you, the owner. Squeezing maximum life out of your ride at minimum cost means being attentive to your car in a variety of ways.
Regular maintenance is crucial
There’s no getting around this one: A car that’s not regularly serviced won’t last as long as one that is. It might not even make it to 100,000 miles.
Regular maintenance is “the key to the automotive fountain of youth,” says Tom Torbjornsen, author of “How to Make Your Car Last Forever.”
What is regular maintenance? It’s what it says right there in the maintenance schedule of your owner’s manual, says Torbjornsen. Follow the “severe duty” schedule of more frequent servicing if your manufacturer specifies one.
Use your senses: Sight
If your routine is to plop into the driver’s seat in a darkened garage at one end of your trip and slam the door behind you in a darkened garage at the other end, it’s time to shake things up a little. “Do a ‘preflight’ at least once a week,” says Tony Molla, vice-president of communications for the National Institute of Automotive Service Excellence (and a certified technician with years of experience). “Walk around your car. Have your kid step on the brake and see if the lights come on. By spotting a problem now, when it’s small, you might save yourself more than just a ticket.”
Use your senses: Sound (and touch)
Though your sight is the most important sense when driving your car, hearing may actually be the most important one to keeping it running. A car that sounds like it’s falling apart probably will soon.
What you’re listening for is anything out of the ordinary. “Any bump, squeak, knocking, ticking? Don’t turn up the radio — turn it off! At what speed does it happen? That’s a really important piece of information you can give to your mechanic,” explains Fix. “If you can guide a technician with that information, you will save them hours of trying to track something down.”
Use your senses: Smell
No, really, your nose can help you head off problems that could endanger your run for 200,000+ miles. When you’re checking the oil, counsels Fix, give it a sniff. If it smells burnt, that could be a sign that your engine is running too lean (not using enough fuel). Fixing this condition could save you from a costly engine rebuild.
Smell can also come into play if your car has a dipstick to check the level of the automatic transmission fluid (not as common as it used to be). If that fluid smells burnt and nasty, it’s also a bad sign.
Say no to short trips
If there’s one single thing you can do as a driver to get your car to last longer on its original parts, it’s to drive it less — specifically, on trips where the engine doesn’t have a chance to reach operating temperature.
Here’s what happens: Water is a byproduct of engine combustion, and some of it gets into your car’s oil and exhaust system every time the engine runs. Also, when your car is first started, more fuel is mixed in to get it running.
Change the transmission fluid
If changing the transmission fluid and filter is specified in your car’s maintenance schedule, well, then, take care of it.
What if no replacement is specified? Increasingly, car manufacturers are either just indicating that the fluid should be checked at intervals or assuring you that the fluid is “lifetime.” To which we say, how long is a lifetime? If you’re looking for a long lifetime, plan on replacing the transmission fluid at least by 100,000 miles (and there’s no harm in doing it earlier). I do not recommend any kind of flush past 80,000 miles. The risk is greater than the reward.
Be prepared to replace bearings and bushings
It’s a given that you’ll be replacing what are known as “wear parts”: tires, brake pads, timing and accessory belts, and shock absorbers. As you head for the land of six-figure mileage, there are some other parts you should be looking to replace before they fail. Tackle these fixes proactively to avoid larger repair bills that might lead you to give up on a car before its time.