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Slide Show | October 2011

10 Cars that Refuse to Die

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Cars in general have become more reliable over the years and yet there are always some models that outlast their peers. Pinpointing exactly how many miles, on average, a given model racked up collectively or individually is virtually impossible, but we've identified 10 cars we see as having exceptional -- sometimes surprising -- endurance and value.


We bet you saw one of these still cruising the highway recently.


Truck lovers, please note. We left trucks (and SUVs with truck chassis) off of our list. We concede almost all trucks seem to hold up well.


10 Cars that Refuse to Die

Olds Cutlass Ciera(GM A-Bodies)

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1984-1996

It's the mid-to-late 1980s. GM quality is going up and its sales are going down. This version of GM's venerable nameplate, along with its clone the Buick Century, hit the intersection of these two trends: GM made a lot of them, and they lasted. One big reason: Most of the bugs had been worked out on these models' forebears, the much-ballyhooed (and much-troubled) GM X-Bodies.

That many of their first owners were seniors who drove them gently and serviced them conscientiously probably helped matters. Note that the Chevy Celebrity and Pontiac 6000, basically the same car, don't enjoy the same endurance.

Olds Cutlass Ciera(GM A-Bodies)

Geo Prizm

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1989-2002

The what? Here's the story, in short: It's a Toyota Corolla with a different nameplate, and everyone knows Corollas last forever. Longer version: the Prizm and some other Corollas-by-another-name (The Chevy Nova and the Pontiac Vibe) were built in California in a GM-Toyota joint venture called NUMMI. The odd arrangement let Toyota get around restrictions on Japanese imports, and let GM learn about Toyota's vaunted manufacturing techniques. Oh, and the car gets 35-40 mpg, which has made it golden during an era of high gas prices.

Geo Prizm

Subaru Wagons (All of Them)

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1990-Present

If all of these failed to start tomorrow, thousands of college professors in the Northeast and Pacific Northwest would have to walk to class. Fortunately for higher education, due to these cars' truck-like fortitude (note that Subaru's parent company is Fuji Heavy Industries), that's not likely.

The standard all-wheel drive on all models also means they'll get their owners (often automotive know-nothings) through nasty weather. It also makes them something of a regional taste. Think of places with lots of rain, or cold, snowy winters. You can tell which region they're from by the inevitable school and/or bumper stickers.

Subaru Wagons (All of Them)

Volvos (Rear-Wheel-Drive Ones)

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Dawn of Man-1996

To some extent, these are the Subaru wagons' spiritual and actual predecessors. Volvo's secret? It basically built one car for 25 years under a variety of nameplates. In its staid Swedish way the carmaker eschewed fashion and focused instead on great quality (and safety). Scandinavian origins can also be credited for the car's rust-resistance.

After duty as family truckster, these cars often devolve to being the kids' college vehicles -- and sleeping quarters at Phish shows.

Volvos (Rear-Wheel-Drive Ones)

Ford Crown Victoria/Mercury Marquis

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1992-2011*

If these can handle police pursuit and taxi duty, they can handle you. Even though the civilian versions lack some endurance-building parts like oil coolers and stronger suspensions, the core components of the Great American Sedan are all there: V-8 engine, solid rear axle, body-on-frame construction.

The Chevy Caprice held this niche as well until the mid-1990s when GM decided to turn its production facility over to big SUVs.

*The Crown Victoria was only available for fleet sales beginning in 2008. The Marquis went to the guillotine along with the entire Mercury brand with the 2011 model year.

Ford Crown Victoria/Mercury Marquis

Fiat 500 (in Europe)

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istockphoto

1957-1975

FIAT: "Fix It Again, Tony," right? That was the joke line about Fiat, which slunk away from the North American market in the early 1980s.

That reputation doesn't apply to the "Cinquecento," of which the Italian maker cranked out 3.4 million between 1957 and 1975, many of which are still plying Italy's narrow stradas today. It helps that the two-cylinder car is outrageously simple -- basically, a lawnmower with a roof. Only a handful made it to the states since they top out around 50 mph.

(We note that Fiat, now Chrysler's majority shareholder, has returned to the U.S. with a single model -- the new 500, seen here in the inset photo. It's a fun ride, but we're not making any forecasts on its reliability).

Fiat 500 (in Europe)

Mercedes 300D/300TD

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Cody Simms

1975-1985

If you wanted a Mercedes in the early 1980s that got anything close to reasonable mileage, you got a diesel. That the company sold as many as it did was largely a fluke of federal fuel economy regulations -- diesels filled a niche. That they were dead-reliable was due largely to their inline-five diesel engines. Remember, Mercedes makes tons of diesel trucks.

Generally garaged and dealer-serviced by their wealthy first owners, many of these are in a second or third life. They're popular among tinkerers who convert them to run on recycled vegetable oil, aka "greasels."

Mercedes 300D/300TD

Honda Accord

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1976-Present

Look around you next time you're driving. Those anonymous tan and silver four-doors? They're Honda Accords. Perhaps you're in one!

Combine best-selling status with reliability -- a nice virtuous cycle -- and you get ubiquity. Exactly what it is about Honda that provides such durability is the subject of debate (and much corporate espionage) but surely some of it has to do with the fact that Honda Motor Company puts its engines and engineering first.

The smaller Honda Civic shares much of the toughness but is more likely to be modified to look flashier and run louder, with maintenance simultaneously neglected.

Honda Accord

BMW 3-Series

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1982-1990

To the insiders, these are the E30 models. To a lot of people, they are the protypical yuppie-mobile. And while their original upwardly mobile professionals have moved on newer and larger BMWs (or, more likely, Lexuses), these models are still riding on, thanks mostly to their reasonable simplicity and a wide range of available parts -- though having the dealership keep it in as-it-came-from-the-factory condition is said by owners with experience to be an expensive fool's game.

There's even a racing series that features only this model car.

BMW 3-Series

Jeep Cherokee

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1987-2001

We're going to make an exception to our 'no-trucks' rule for the Jeep Cherokee. For one thing, it's not really a truck. As the first small crossover SUV in the U.S., it did not have the traditional body-on-frame construction.

But it did have plenty of the Jeep toughness (and a straight-6 engine) built in, and many of these are still roaming America's secondary roads -- and Europe as well, in a turbodiesel variant. Interestingly, even as Jeep came up with the upmarket Grand Cherokee (somewhat less reliable, natch), it kept cranking out the old model, basically due to consumer demand. Oh, one more truck exception? The original Toyota 4-Runner.

Jeep Cherokee

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