Holding on to your vehicle for as long as possible is the best way to save right now
One day during my high school years, my dad got excited because the odometer on his car—a 1983 Toyota Camry hatchback he’d bought used several years earlier—was about to reach 200,000 miles. We were in the middle of running that afternoon’s errands, but he pulled over to the side of the road so that he, my brother, and I could sing “Happy Birthday” to the car to mark its major milestone. It was a silly thing to do, but we felt a collective sense of pride that the car was still going strong with all those grueling suburban commuter miles piled on. That pride remained for me years later, when I was still driving the same Camry past its 300,000-mile mark.
I’ve owned a handful of other cars that rolled through 200,000-plus miles since then. Now, years later, my job is to research and write about automotive repair and maintenance, but you don’t need to be an expert to get your car to that milestone. I always stay on top of regular maintenance, and I take care of even small repairs before they can become bigger, more expensive issues. After all, there’s plenty that can go wrong with a car that could, technically, be ignored if the car still starts and gets you to where you need to go. But neglecting small repairs and maintenance issues as they crop up is a bad habit that can shorten your car’s life. I also put some effort into keeping my cars clean to protect against corrosion and to make them look nice.
John Ibbotson, Consumer Reports’ chief mechanic, says, “It’s not rocket science. If you take care of your car, it will take care of you.”
Fred Hellrich, who lives in Annapolis, Md., says he has had several cars pass the 200,000-mile mark—and a couple of vehicles that made it more than 400,000 miles—everything from a Chevrolet van to a Toyota Tercel.
“It helps to get a good car to begin with,” he says, echoing CR’s long-standing advice to buy models with a strong track record for reliability. “That way you know it’ll probably go pretty far if you take care of it.”
Taking care of and holding on to a reliable car—rather than buying or leasing a new one every few years—is almost always a smart financial move. These days, though, with used-car prices more than 50 percent above pre-pandemic levels and the average new car price over $46,000, it may be especially smart to hang on to what you have.
Whatever your reasons—saving money, the comfort of familiarity, avoiding the worry of new car dings and scratches—it can be a rewarding experience to keep your car going. In the following pages, we tell you what to expect as your car ages, and how to make sure it becomes a 200,000-mile champ.
Cars That Go the Distance
We’ve compiled the 10 top car brands for used vehicles, based on the average reliability of their 2012 model lineup that we have sufficient data in our surveys. We’ve also highlighted the most reliable 2012 model within each brand below the brand name. For those in the market for a reasonably priced used vehicle, these are the winners. Our list points to the brands with cars that hold up over time and that you can rely on to get you to 200,000 miles with the fewest repair bumps.
*Brand reliability score is the average for all models in the automaker’s 2012 lineup.
The Road to 200,000 Miles
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 Surveys 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.
0 to 36,000 Miles
During this traditional warranty period, maintenance will be limited to regular oil changes, tire rotations, and inspecting the brakes, wipers, and tires for wear. You can save by replacing simple items yourself, such as wiper blades. Beyond wear items, the vehicle’s various parts and systems will be under warranty, so you can go to the dealership for repairs.
Oil change: $60
Tire rotation: $60
Windshield wiper blades: $60
36,000 to 60,000 Miles
Your car is likely to need tires during this time. Be sure to consult CR’s expert tire reviews and ratings. Your brake pads, and maybe the rotors, could be nearing the end of their service life and should be checked and replaced, if necessary.
Wheel alignment (4 wheels): $297
Brake pads (pair): $607
60,000 to 100,000 Miles
Most vehicles are out of warranty at this point. Continue to monitor brakes and tires for wear, and pay closer attention to suspension parts, such as shock absorbers, struts, and bushings. It’s best to replace suspension and brake parts in pairs, and be sure to get a four-wheel alignment when you buy new tires or have suspension parts replaced.
Front struts (both): $979
Rear struts (both): $600
Control arms (both): $605
100,000 to 150,000 Miles
Major services, such as timing-belt replacement, are typically needed, and you can expect items such as spark plugs, the starter, the alternator, and suspension parts to need replacing. “In theory, if you get that stuff replaced in the 100,000-to-150,000-mile range, the cycle starts again and you should be good for a while,” Ibbotson says.
Water pump assembly: $748
Spark plugs: $215
150,000 to 200,000 Miles
This is when your car may need larger repairs, such as replacement of leaking engine oil seals, a transmission rebuild or replacement, a new exhaust system, or possibly a head gasket replacement. “The potential for big repairs goes up after 150,000 miles,” Ibbotson says.
Head gasket: $3,957
Transmission replacement: $7,803
Muffler replacement: $725
Source: 2020-21 Toyota RAV4 parts and labor pricing in the New York City metropolitan area, provided by CR, RepairPal (a CR partner), and SimpleTire.
How to Join the 200K Club
The first rule of getting a car to 200,000 miles (and beyond) is to follow a maintenance plan. That’s why automakers include a schedule in the owner’s manual of every car they sell. Taking care of basics, such as timely oil changes and checkups, can uncover small problems before they metastasize into bigger, more expensive ones. Keeping your car clean, inside and out, helps prevent rust and damage to upholstery.
“Everything is interconnected, so when one part fails, it can put more strain on other parts, causing them to fail, too,” Ibbotson says.
Changing and topping off engine oil and transmission fluid—and differential oil for all-wheel-drive and four-wheel-drive vehicles—are the bedrock of auto maintenance.
How often: Every 3,000 to 10,000 miles, depending on the model.
Where to go: A repair shop you trust. Avoid chain establishments because they might use cheap oil and filters.
Average price range: $30 to $150.
Smart tip: Use the type of oil recommended in the manual, and don’t splurge on synthetic unless the manual calls for it.
Replace tires when the tread is thin or when they’re older than 10 years. Rough roads and worn suspension parts on the car can cause tires to wear faster.
How often: It can be from 30,000 to 80,000 miles, depending on your car, the tire model, and your driving.
Where to go: Your usual trusted repair shop or a specialty tire shop.
Average price range: $556 to $1,256.
Smart tip: Properly inflated tires are safer and save gas. Check the doorjamb sticker for the proper pressure. It’s also important to rotate tires every 5,000 to 8,000 miles to promote even wear.
Brakes won’t last as long under frequent stop-and-go conditions or repeated hard braking. Front brakes tend to wear out faster than the rear ones because they provide most of the stopping power.
How often: 25,000 to 70,000 miles.
Where to go: A repair shop you trust.
Average price range: $249 to $275.
Smart tip: Driving evenly extends brake life and saves gas. Spend more for high-quality brake parts. Inexpensive pads wear quickly, and cheap rotors can more easily warp and cause vibrations when you’re driving.
On most cars, spark plugs and other tuneup items aren’t an issue until the 100,000-mile mark, Ibbotson says. Make sure to get the exact type recommended by the manufacturer. Incorrect plugs can wreck fuel economy and even cause engine damage.
How often: Typically, 100,000 miles.
Where to go: A repair shop you trust.
Average price range: $196 to $251.
Smart tip: When changing spark plugs, make sure the replacements are equivalent in quality to what came with the car to ensure proper performance. Your mechanic can advise you.
Not all cars have timing belts, but for those that do, follow manufacturer recommendations on replacement. The service can be expensive, but skipping it can result in major engine damage if a worn belt breaks.
How often: Usually every 60,000 to 100,000 miles.
Where to go: A repair shop you trust.
Average price range: $581 to $746.
Smart tip: It may make sense to replace the water pump, belt tensioners, and pulleys at the same time to save on future labor costs.
Shock absorbers and struts soak up road bumps and keep the car steady. Like brakes and tires, the life span of these suspension parts can depend on the quality of the roads where you drive.
How often: Shocks and struts can last 80,000 miles or more, but rough roads and aggressive driving can make them wear out faster.
Where to go: A repair shop you trust.
Average price range: $853 to $928.
Smart tip: High-quality parts will last longer than cheap ones. Be sure the shocks and struts you use meet manufacturer specifications.
How often: Most batteries last from three to five years. Hot weather and letting the car sit for extended periods can shorten the battery’s life.
Where to go: An auto parts store (many install free of charge) or a repair shop you trust. Check CR’s car battery ratings.
Average price range: $317 to $328.
Smart tip: Inspect your car battery periodically. If you see corrosion on the terminals or it looks like it’s leaking, it’s time to replace it.
Most cars come with a stainless steel exhaust system that lasts a long time. When it does wear out, it’s probably at high mileage.
How often: When rust holes perforate the pipes or mufflers.
Where to go: A dependable shop that specializes in replacing exhaust systems and mufflers.
Average price range: $800 to $834.
Smart tip: Be sure to use quality exhaust parts. Cheap ones are more likely to corrode, so you’ll have to pay labor costs for a replacement sooner.
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.
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