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Keep Your Old Car Running Longer

by Jerry Edgerton / December 24th, 2012

Despite improving new cars sales, many Americans are holding on to their old cars longer while they prepare to replace them. The average age of vehicles on the road in America has hit a record 10.8 years, according to research firm R.L. Polk. And a survey by the automotive website Auto MD showed that 64% of respondents had a car or truck with more than 100,000 miles on the odometer. If you have a car that old—or just want to keep your newer-model car running a long time, car care experts have good news. A car built in the past decade has a good chance of running well up to 150,000 miles. Not long ago, owners could expect that cars hitting 100,000 miles would start to have lots of expensive problems. But there is a catch. "Cars can run a long time with proper care, and that is an important caveat," says Mike Calkins, manager of approved auto repair for the national AAA. Here are the recommendations that Calkins and other car care experts give if you want to keep your old—or not so old—car running a long time:

Follow the prescribed maintenance schedule

Stick to the timetable in the owners' manual for oil changes and other maintenance. Most manufacturers call for changing oil every 5,000 to 7,500 miles, longer intervals than in the past. You only need to change oil more often if you drive a lot in dusty conditions or extreme heat or cold, or if you tow a trailer or boat frequently. When you do have maintenance done, get the mechanic to check the coolant and the fluid level in the power steering. And get your brakes checked regularly. Call attention to any scraping or grinding noises you've heard from the brakes, or to a brake pedal that feels spongy.
If you are in the market for a different vehicle, make your credit union your first stop for better auto loan rates.

Find a good mechanic

You likely can save money by going to an independent mechanic instead of a dealership, especially if you have an older car. An AutoMD study found that car owners using independent mechanics instead of dealer service departments saved an average of $300 a year principally because of higher labor rates for technicians at dealers. And if your car is newer and still under warranty, AutoMD points out that you can use an independent mechanic for routine maintenance without voiding warranty coverage. Check here to see if there is a AAA-certified repair shop in your area. (When you find your state or regional AAA, click auto repair). The stringent certification program, run by Calkins, includes inspections of the shop and equipment, review of its technicians, background financial checks, and customer satisfaction surveys. Once shops are approved, AAA inspectors make quarterly visits to assure they still are meeting standards. If you cannot find a AAA shop nearby, look for one that has individual mechanics certified in their specialties by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence, usually known as ASE. A shop often will display these certifications on its website or with plaques on the wall.
A car built in the past decade has a good chance of running well up to 150,000 miles.

Consider doing some jobs yourself

If you want to save money in addition to keeping maintenance current on your car, consider doing some simple tasks yourself. For instance, you might replace the windshield wiper blades. The blades usually just snap in by hand and require no tools—look for instructions on the blade package you buy at the auto parts store. Another possibility is replacing the air filter. The air filter box is on top of the engine and the exact location will be clearly identified in the owner's manual. Once you've removed the cover, take out the old filter and clean out the filter box. Then be sure to install the new one facing in the same direction as the old.

Get in some highway driving

Short trips of stop-and-go driving are hard on a car. If you habitually make only a short commute or a brief trip for errands, take the car out and drive at highway speeds every few weeks. And pay attention to how you drive. Avoiding sharp acceleration and sudden braking not only improves your gas mileage, it helps extend the life of your car as well.

Special advice for older cars

If your car has more than 100,000 miles already, car care experts have some additional advice:
  • Get all the belts and hoses checked. These rubber parts can be damaged by heat under the hood and, if they fail, can lead to more serious problems.
    If you want to save money and keep maintenance current on your car, do some simple tasks yourself.
  • Make sure you have a wheel alignment. It will keep your steering properly responsive and cut down on tire wear, saving you money in the long run. In addition, advises AutoMD, check your tires frequently to make sure they are inflated to the recommended pressure, usually listed on a panel attached to the driver's side door. Not only are underinflated tires unsafe, but they can cause a loss of up to 3% in gas mileage.
  • Check to see if you had the timing belt changed when recommended—usually between 60,000 and 90,000 miles. If not, get it changed now, even though it can cost $300 or more; otherwise more serious, and more expensive, engine repairs could await you.
  • If your headlights seem dim or look cloudy or hazy, ask about headlight restoration. For about $100, a shop will restore them to their initial brightness—less cost than a full headlight replacement. This is a safety issue if you often drive at night.
Most of all, keep up the maintenance routine even as the car ages so you—not mechanical failure—can determine how long you drive that car. If you are in the market for a different vehicle, make your credit union your first stop. Credit unions generally offer better auto loan rates than other financial institutions. Jerry Edgerton writes the Cars and Money blog for CBS MoneyWatch.com. He is a former automotive writer for Money Magazine and the author of "Car Shopping Made Easy."
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