Cars whose owners nurtured them to last 200,000 miles used to be an aberration. But now most cars can last that long if you pay attention to the maintenance.
Despite booming car sales, the average car on U.S. roads is 11.5 years old. At typical annual mileage, that translates to 122,500 miles on average. Twenty years ago, 100,000 miles was considered the limit for automotive life before constant troubles set in. Now there are hundreds of thousands of cars not only running but up on the market for resale with 200,000 miles or more. The Honda Accord, one of the most popular midsize sedans, had 377,000 in that category, according to a study by automotive web site iSeeCars.com.
What happened? Cars simply have become better made in the last decade. “Every new car today is built to last a quarter of a million miles,” says Mike Calkins, manager of technical services at AAA. “But along with that capability, you need to pay more attention to maintenance.”
If you like to drive a car for a long time rather than trade every few years (and you know who you are), decide early that you will stick to all the maintenance recommendations from the automaker. Although modern engines are built to last, they also operate at a high percentage of capacity. That makes up-to-date maintenance all the more important. Between service intervals, check fluid levels and tire inflation once a month, Calkins advises.
Especially when the car is new, it makes sense to go to your franchised dealer for regular maintenance. That assures that proper procedures are being followed, and that nothing is violating the conditions of your warranty. Some automakers—especially luxury brands like Audi and BMW—provide free maintenance for the first few visits. Once your warranty has expired (often after three years or 36,000 miles), you might consider a good independent mechanic for less expensive maintenance. If you go this route, be sure to get and hang onto complete records of procedures.
If you want to keep up good maintenance, here is a fairly typical set of recommendations--made specifically for a Chevrolet Cruze, but applicable to many vehicles.
Once a month: Check that the tires are properly inflated, leading to a smoother ride and better gas mileage. Check the windshield washer fluid level.
Every 7,500 miles: This is an interval of about eight months in typical driving. Change the oil and oil filter. Have the tires rotated so they will wear evenly. Check the engine coolant level and inspect the windshield wiper blades to see if they need replacement. Keeping fresh oil and other fluids in your car can help avoid larger problems.
At 36,000 miles: Change the passenger compartment air filter, which keeps dust and air pollutants from reaching passengers inside.
At 72,000 miles: Change the passenger air filter again. Change the engine air cleaner filter. Check the evaporative control system, which filters out pollutant emissions caused as gasoline evaporates.
All service visits: Be sure the recommended fluids are being used. In the past, oil, brake fluid and other engine liquids were pretty much interchangeable among brands. Now, each manufacturer has very specific recommendations. For instance, beginning with the 2011 model year, General Motors recommends that all its cars use a semi-synthetic oil called Dexos. Automakers also have specific recommendations for other engine fluids set forth in each owner's manual. Diesel engines may need a different set of fluids.
Not only will your car perform better with the recommended product, notes Calkins of AAA, but your warranty may be invalid if you do not follow those directions. If you get maintenance done at a dealership, the manufacturer will assume the correct products were used. But Calkins advises that if you go to an independent repair shop, get documentation of the fluids used at each service visit.
Read next: 23 Ways to Slash Your Car Expenses
When your car starts getting up toward that average mileage--say 100,000 miles and above--you should take some special steps.
Check the belts and hoses. These rubber parts can fall apart, but in modern versions it is hard to see if they are weakening. Get your mechanic to check them when in for a regular service.
Double check if the timing belt's been changed. Most manufacturers recommend doing this somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000 miles. This can be an expensive repair--ranging from $300 up to $1,000 or so on luxury brands. But if it breaks, it can cause more serious, and expensive, engine troubles.
See if you need a wheel alignment. If your car will not hold a straight line when you take your hands off the wheel at low speed, it probably needs an alignment. Failure to do so will result in excessive wear on your tires.
Don't necessarily be discouraged by a costly repair estimate. "People sometimes think they should just get a new car," Calkins notes. "But I tell them if the repair costs less than half the value of the car, go ahead and do it. Even an expensive repair won't cost as much as five years of payments on a new car."
For additional ways to save money on your car budget while you are driving those 200,000 miles, check out this list of 23 money-saving tips.