Buy a Safe, Reliable Model
You can coax any vehicle to 200,000 miles with enough patience and cash, but that doesn’t make doing so a good idea for everyone. The best way to minimize visits to the shop is to start with a model that has a reliable track record. And you don’t have to look far for a source. Consumer Reports compiles comprehensive reliability information from our Annual Auto Survey of members. They provide us with data on more than 1 million vehicles, and we publish the findings. In addition to choosing a reliable model, make sure to pick a car you’ll want to keep for a long time. Don’t compromise on the features you want or buy less or more vehicle than you think you’ll need. If this is going to be a long relationship, it may as well be a happy one. So choose a vehicle that will fit your lifestyle today and tomorrow, and pick one that you’ll enjoy driving. While you’re shopping, keep a sharp eye out for cars that have the latest safety features. Automatic emergency braking, forward collision warning, and blind spot warning are highly recommended. (If you're buying an older car, insist on electronic stability control and a rear camera, features that are standard on all new cars.) Remember to research how well any vehicle you’re interested in performed in government and insurance-industry safety tests.
If you’re buying a used car, be on the lookout for signs of neglect or abuse. Check for dents, rust, and mismatched body panels. Look for paint overspray, which is often a sign of repair work. Make sure all interior components are in good condition. A mildew smell, discolored carpeting, and silt in the trunk are indicators of water damage. All components under the hood should be free of corrosion and grease. Check the fluids and watch out for damp areas in the engine compartment and under the vehicle, which might point to leaks.
When you’ve found a vehicle you’re interested in, take it to an independent mechanic for a diagnostic inspection, which costs about $100 to $150. A mechanic can help you spot signs of wear or abuse that you might not see.
Stick to the Schedule
Follow the maintenance schedule in your car’s owner’s manual. It spells out when to take care of every service for the life of your car, including routine oil and filter changes, tire rotations, and more major service such as timing-belt replacement. Simply follow the routine spelled out for you. Even missing one oil change can contribute to premature engine wear, or cause damage and reduce the chances of your car remaining reliable for long. (Go to our guide to car maintenance.)
If you’ve neglected following your vehicle’s maintenance schedule, it’s not too late to get with the program. Have a mechanic inspect your vehicle and take care of any apparent problems, no matter how minor. Then introduce yourself to your owner’s manual and start fresh. Even if your vehicle doesn’t make it to 200,000 miles, it will definitely last longer with proper ongoing care.
Following the maintenance schedule has become easier over the years because longer-lasting components and fluids have increased service intervals. Today, many cars can go 10,000 miles between oil changes, and some spark plugs don’t need replacing for 100,000 miles.
Consider using what's often called the severe-use or extreme-use maintenance schedule in your owner’s manual. Most drivers who need to follow such a schedule do a lot of city driving; live in a very hot or cold climate in mountain regions or near the ocean; make a lot of short trips; tow a trailer; or drive in dusty conditions. If that description sounds like it includes a lot of drivers, it does.
The difference between the regular maintenance schedule and the severe-use schedule can be significant, with severe-use oil-change intervals being much shorter, sometimes twice as often. Intervals for other services also change accordingly under severe-use guidelines.
Many new models from a wide variety of carmakers make it even easier to stay on top of maintenance, with sensors that take into account your mileage and driving habits to determine the optimum time for maintenance. They monitor the miles driven since the last service and record data such as how much stop-and-go driving is done, the engine temperature during each trip, and the time the engine spends operating at higher speeds. The system then calculates how quickly your oil is breaking down and alerts you when service is due, and can even adjust a car’s complete service interval to compensate for your specific use.
But don’t overmaintain your car; that can be a waste of money. Watch out for dealers or repair shops that add maintenance work not called for in the owner’s manual. That can add hundreds of dollars to a routine service bill.
Don't Skimp on Parts
Trying to save a couple of bucks on cheap parts and fluids could cost you in the long run. The wrong type of oil or transmission fluid, for example, could cause damage leading to expensive repairs, voiding your warranty and diminishing long-term reliability. Cheap and no-name belts and hoses might not wear as well as those from a name-brand supplier. To be safe, only use parts and fluids meeting manufacturer specifications.
If your car’s manual says that premium fuel is required, go for the expensive stuff. Some engines won’t perform correctly without higher-octane gasoline, and using regular or even midgrade fuel might cause damage. If premium fuel is recommended (but not required), you’re fine using lower-octane gasoline because the engine-control system has sensors that will compensate for it. Using premium fuel in a car designed to run on regular gas won’t cause an improvement in performance, fuel economy, or engine life, so save your money. (For more tips, see our guide to fuel economy.)
Know What to Watch For
Even if you adhere to the schedule, remember that problems can arise unexpectedly. The manual might say how often to inspect belts and hoses, for example, but when to replace them can vary greatly by climate and other factors. So get in the habit of opening the hood to look, listen, and smell for anything unusual. Fraying and cracks in belts are sure signs of trouble, along with cracks and bulges in hoses. Look for evidence of leaks, and check the level and condition of coolant and brake and power-steering fluids. They can give you clues about what’s going on inside components. Gritty-feeling or burnt-smelling transmission fluid, for example, could indicate the start of internal damage. By catching it early, you could reduce repair costs and increase long-term reliability.
On the road, listen for odd noises from your engine, suspension, and brakes. If you have any doubts about a noise, get it checked out right away by a mechanic. Taking care of a minor repair now could help you avoid an expensive one later.
Consider investing in a vehicle service manual, available at car dealerships and most auto-parts stores. More detailed than your owner’s manual, a service manual can explain in illustrated detail what to look for, and assist with minor repairs that can extend long-term reliability. (Learn more from our car repair guide and estimator.)
Keep Your Machine Clean
Cleaning inside and out will keep your car looking fresh, and the routine will also make it a more pleasant place to be as the miles roll up. Washing and waxing can help preserve the paint and prevent rust, and vacuuming sand and dirt out of carpets and seats can minimize premature wear that leads to tears and holes. And while you clean, you might spot small problems that you wouldn’t notice otherwise, such as scratches that need to be painted over and loose or broken parts that should be repaired or replaced. (Learn how to make it shine with our car wax advice.)
The End of the Road
No matter how well you choose and care for a car, someday it will be time to move on because it’s costing too much or is no longer safe. Still, saying goodbye can be a tough decision, especially if you’re attached to your car.
Here are signs that it’s probably time to find another vehicle:
- It needs a big repair that will cost more to fix than the car is worth.
- Rust is compromising the structural integrity.
- It remains unreliable even with frequent repairs.
- It has been in a flood or a serious accident.