There’s no way to guarantee that your car will reach the 200,000-mile mark relatively trouble-free. But because today’s cars are better than their predecessors in virtually every way, there’s a higher chance you’ll reach that milestone than ever. To get there, though, you’ll need to follow 4 important guidelines.
1. Reliability rules
The most important step by far is to buy a new or lightly used car with a solid reputation for quality. If you’re not willing to do that, don’t even bother reading the rest of this article.
Buying an unreliable car is bad news on at least 4 counts:
- You’ll likely spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars more to maintain and repair it.
- You’ll feel uneasy when you drive it—especially for long distances—afraid that it might break down.
- You won’t get as much money when you sell it or trade it in.
- It could break down and leave you stranded in a dangerous situation.
Fortunately, it’s relatively easy to find a reliable car or light truck. One excellent source of information is Consumer Reports, which surveys its members annually and collects reams of information on any problems they have with their vehicles (type “Guide to Car Reliability” into the search box). Every April, the magazine publishes an auto issue that’s jam-packed with useful information, such as brief reviews of cars currently for sale and vehicle reliability records that go back 8 years.
Another good source is J.D. Power; click on the “Awards & Ratings” tab. Vehicle dependability was at an all-time high in 2021, according to a recent J.D. Power survey: Problems reported in 2020 declined by 10% in 2021.
Kelley Blue Book also posts a New Car Buyer’s Guide online (click on the “Car Reviews” tab, then “best cars”), which ranks vehicles by category, such as best minivans and best compact SUVs. The rankings are accompanied by reviews from KBB staff and vehicle owners.
Finally, the automotive website iSeeCars.com has several sections on vehicle reliability: most-reliable new and used cars, most-reliable new and used pickups, and most-reliable, longest-lasting SUVs, for example.
2. Buy a safe car
This, too, is easier to do than ever, especially if you buy a car that’s no more than a few years old. Look for 2 things: high crash-test scores and lots of advanced safety features.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA, pronounced nit-sa), an agency of the U.S. Department of Transportation, performs frontal and side crash tests and a rollover test that simulate real-world car crashes. The agency uses star ratings (1 through 5) to designate a vehicle’s safety level in each area. By law, all vehicles sold in the U.S. must meet NHTSA standards.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), an independent safety-research group underwritten by auto insurers, performs crash testing that’s similar to and complements NHTSA’s. Vehicles are not legally obligated to meet IIHS standards, but automakers quickly fix defects on cars that do poorly because they hold the agency’s testing reputation in high regard.
IIHS runs frontal crash tests; front crash-prevention tests; a side test; a roof-strength test; and tests of head restraints and seats, headlight systems, and child-seat-attachment hardware. IIHS awards Top Safety Pick and Top Safety Pick+ designations to vehicles that perform best in the agency’s crashworthiness, crash-avoidance, and headlight evaluations.
Next, choose a car with a full suite of advanced safety features. These include:
- Automatic emergency braking warns drivers of a possible collision with the car in front of them; if drivers don’t respond, the system applies the vehicle’s brakes.
- Blind-spot warning alerts drivers that it’s unsafe to make a lane change because of cars in lanes adjacent to their vehicle.
- Rear cross-traffic warning assists drivers who are driving in reverse (backing out of a parking space, for example) by detecting vehicles, bicycles, or people approaching from the rear or either side.
- Adaptive cruise control adjusts a vehicle’s speed so that it keeps a continuous, safe distance from the one in front of it.
- Lane-keeping assistance detects when a vehicle is drifting out of its lane and guides it back.
These safety features have been proven to reduce accidents and save lives. In fact, based on its testing, NHTSA recommends that consumers purchase vehicles with forward-collision warning, automatic emergency braking, and lane-departure warning. Fortunately, in recent years automakers have made more and more advanced safety features standard equipment.
3. Buy a car you really like
Reliability is key, as is safety. But remember, you’ll likely be driving this vehicle for 15 years or more, so make sure you choose a car or light truck that you really like, not one that you simply tolerate.
Assess your needs honestly and choose your vehicle accordingly. Certain functional considerations—cargo room, towing capacity, horsepower, fuel economy, or ride comfort—are important, maybe very important. But choosing the right vehicle isn’t a purely rational decision. No less important is what you want in a car, which is based on your feelings.
In short, buying a car should be the right (for you) balance of reason and emotion. That’s because liking your car improves the experience of owning it. It can make you look forward to what otherwise might be a soul-crushing commute. It can put a smile on your face every time you climb into the driver’s seat.
4. Maintain your car by the book
Buying a reliable, safe car that you really like is the first part of the 200,000-mile agenda. Properly maintaining it is the second.
If you want your car to last a long time, you’ll need to become BFFs with its owner’s manual. At first glance, that might seem like a daunting task, since owner’s manuals routinely run about 600 pages. But you’ll be focusing principally on the maintenance section, which spells out in detail the major and minor procedures necessary to keep your car in good running condition.
For the most part, proper service is determined by 2 things: how many miles you’ve driven and/or the time interval since your last service. As an example, we’ll describe the routine maintenance schedule for a late-model Toyota Camry, which is fairly typical of many of today’s cars:
- Every 5,000 miles: tire rotation, inspect and adjust fluid levels, and a multipoint inspection (brakes, wipers, cooling system, fluid levels, exhaust system, etc.).
- Every 10,000 miles: the above, plus an oil and filter change.
Cars that are driven in nonstandard conditions (lots of dirt or dust, extreme heat or cold, or continuous stop-and-go driving, for example) might need more frequent maintenance. Certain procedures, such as oil changes, are recommended once a year if a car hasn’t been driven the requisite number of miles.
There’s more, of course. Tires and brakes often need replacing/repair every 40,000 to 70,000 miles. Shocks and struts might need to be replaced at 80,000 miles; you’ll probably need a major tune-up and timing belt replacement at 100,000 miles. This is all spelled out in the owner’s manual.
Be alert to unusual sounds or odors, and let your service advisor know about anything you notice that’s out of the ordinary, such as a grinding noise when you step on the brake pedal.
Other important matters
Several other things worth noting: First, automakers know what your car needs to keep it running in top condition, so don’t skip routine maintenance. Keeping your car well maintained will not only ensure that it runs well, but it will also keep small problems from turning into big, expensive ones.
Second, find a dealership or independent repair facility that you trust and can communicate well with. Its staff will be honest with you about your car’s needs, will do quality work, and will stand by the work if problems arise. What’s more, the service reps will get to know your car and its history. They’ll be able to tell you what maintenance you need to prioritize and what you can safely put off for a while if you need to.
How to find a trustworthy repair shop? Ask family or friends, read online reviews, or check the Better Business Bureau’s rankings. Even better, as a AAA member, take advantage of AAA’s Approved Auto Repair (AAR) program—there’s no cost to you.
AAR sets strict quality standards, regularly inspects the shops in the program, and monitors customer feedback. It makes sure all shops have technicians with the right credentials and equipment, and that they treat their customers fairly and courteously. If customers have disputes, AAA will mediate on their behalf. To find an Approved Auto Repair facility near you, click here. To find out the approximate cost of a repair, click here.
Supplement scheduled maintenance with monthly DIY routines, which include checking the pressures and condition of your tires, the engine oil level, windshield-wiper blades, and the various lighting systems. Check out your owner’s manual. Many of them list DIY maintenance tasks, accompanied by detailed instructions and graphics; performing them should take less than an hour.
Finally, treat your car with TLC. When you start your car in the morning, drive gently at first so the oil can circulate and reach its normal operating temperature. This will help reduce engine wear. Also, minimize short trips, which create excess engine wear because they don’t allow the engine to reach its normal operating temperature. Avoid jackrabbit starts and abrupt braking, which can lower fuel economy, stress engine mounts, and increase brake-pad and rotor wear.
Besides mechanical maintenance, keep your car clean inside and out. Wash it every couple of weeks, and polish and wax it twice a year—or, if that’s not your thing, have it detailed professionally. Remove bird droppings and tree sap, which can damage the paint. And park it indoors whenever possible to minimize sun damage to the paint, upholstery, and rubber seals. Get dents and scrapes repaired.
That’s pretty much it. Following the procedures outlined above will save you money and time, help your car run better, ensure its reliability, prevent dangerous breakdowns—and more than likely take you to the 200,000-mile mark and beyond.
John Lehrer is the contributing automotive editor of Westways.
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