Buying & Leasing a Car

5 Ways to Extend the Life of Your Car

Show your car some love and skip the new-car payments.

Irv Gordon owns a 1966 Volvo P1800 with more than 2.8 million miles on the odometer. He holds the Guinness World Record for the most miles driven by a single owner in a noncommercial vehicle. The car still has the original engine (although it has been preventatively rebuilt twice), transmission and radio.

The secret to his car’s longevity? Gordon has always changed the oil and fluids -- and performed other maintenance -- according to the recommendations in the owner’s manual.

Think about how much you’ll save by keeping your current car on the road before you surrender to the lure of a new set of wheels. For example, buy a 2011 Ford Fusion SEL ($25,380), and in the first year you’ll lay out $7,450 on the down payment and loan payments (assuming you put down 10% and get Ford’s 2.9% financing for five years) -- plus taxes, tags and registration fees. And those loan payments go on for another four years.

But if you have a paid-off Fusion that’s a few years old, you skip the monthly payments and new-vehicle taxes, and you’ll probably pay less in insurance premiums, too. Maintenance and repairs will cost more -- but they’re likely to average only $1,000 a year, according to numbers from Vincentric, an automotive research firm.

So how do you keep your car in the pink? Whether you’re aiming for a couple more years or a couple hundred thousand miles, the advice is the same.

1. Read the owner’s manual. According to CarMD.com, slightly more than half of people who have owned or leased a car follow a regular maintenance program. Stick to the manufacturer’s recommendations on oil changes (forget the old 3,000-mile rule and go by your book), as well as other regular maintenance. And getting checkups at regular intervals can help spot problems that could imperil your car’s overall health.

But don’t be swayed by every service notice from your dealer. Dealerships typically recommend more frequent maintenance than the manual does, says Phil Reed, of Edmunds.com. For example, the book may recommend an automatic-transmission flush, which runs about $120, at 80,000 miles, but a dealer could recommend it as early as 20,000 miles.

2. Use online forums. You want to learn about potential problems before they happen so that you can prevent them -- or fix them immediately. Jeff Cuje, of Sag Harbor, N.Y., plans to be buried in his 1986 Mercedes-Benz SL, so he’s taking pains to make it last. His best advice is to find an owners’ forum online and “get on the wavelength of what the problems are as your car gets older,” he says.

Sports cars and classic vehicles have enthusiastic online followings, but you’ll also find lots of sites that cover daily drivers. For example, we searched the Internet for “Nissan Altima owners’ forum” and “Ford Taurus owners’ forum” and got plenty of hits.

3. Become friends with your mechanic. Finding a mechanic you can trust is key to keeping up with repairs you need. But even then, don’t say yes to every fix. Get a second opinion on anything major if you’re unsure about the problem or the cost.

4. Don’t ignore small problems. Cuje pays close attention not only to his vehicle’s noises but also to its warning lights and even cosmetic things, like a piece of rubber trim that’s loose. Ignoring a problem only allows it to get worse, he says, and parts for aging vehicles only get harder to find.

Amazon.com is a good place to look for parts. If you’re handy, you may be able to do a small repair yourself. Reed spent $20 for new brake parts and installed them himself -- a repair that would have cost $350 at the dealership.

5. Give your car some love. Wash it, wax it and vacuum it. Treat leather surfaces with Armor All, and lubricate plastic and rubber parts. Doing these things protects both the paint and the interior from aging prematurely. Also consider having your car detailed, which typically includes steam cleaning the carpet, shampooing the upholstery, buffing out scratches and sometimes even removing small dents. The cost is usually less than $300. The better your car looks, the more you’ll want to take care of it.

How exactly do you show love to your car to keep it running as long as possible? Do you avoid short trips? Use synthetic oil? Share your tips for enhancing the longevity of your car in the comments box below.

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