Cars are lasting longer than ever

September 10, 2015 02:14 PM

It sounds odd to say in a culture obsessed with technology that's made to be replaced for the "next new thing," but cars are lasting longer than ever these days.

The most recent numbers show the average vehicle still on the road in the U.S. is a whopping 11.5 years old.

With vehicles lasting so long, proper ongoing maintenance becomes that much more important. But more on that later. How in the world can the average car be nearly a dozen years old?

Betters cars, better economy
A yearly study by IHS Automotive sheds some light on the answer. It's two complimentary trends: increasing car quality and and an improving U.S. economy. 

Experts put much of that dynamic up to a simple fact: Cars are actually being built better than they used to be.

"As long as we have tracked average age," said IHS Automotive's Mark Seng, "it has gradually risen over time due to the increasing quality of automobiles."

The Great Recession accelerated the pace of that aging. Seng told the Detroit Free Press that in the five or so years after the financial crisis, average ages rose five times more quickly than usual. Drivers were hanging on to their old cars longer.

That's beginning to change. Researchers highlight a plateau in the aging of the American auto fleet as the economy improves. Folks are apparently feeling more secure about their jobs, or have finally found steady work again, and are willing to take on car payments.

People own their cars for longer
Drilling down further into the data, it's clear that most cars will have several owners across their lifespan. By the first quarter of 2015, the average length of ownership for new cars had increased to nearly 78 months, or six and a half years. Ownership length stretched more than two full years since 2006, an artifact of the sour economy. In that same period on the used car side, average ownership periods have risen from just over three years to five and a half years.

Look at it this way. In 1995, the average light car or truck stayed on the road a total of 8.4 years, according to U.S. Department of Transportation data, citing IHS Automotive stats. By 2007 the average had hit double digits at 10.0.

Ancient RVs
Some types of vehicles keep rolling for even longer. The DOT showed motor homes' average age skyrocketing from 4.5 years in 1977 to a Methuselah-like 16 years in 2009.

Seng, in a separate interview with USA Today, said that longevity has been good news for repair shops - and less good news for the mechanics at dealerships.

"As the vehicle gets older, they get nearly all of that repair business, as opposed to that dealer channel," said Seng, whose full title is global aftermarket practice leader at IHS Automotive.

Heading in for regular vehicle maintenance will help you take advantage of cars perhaps surprising durability, given Detroit's self-interest in making drivers buy wheels. After all, it seems many industries base themselves on "planned obsolescence" rather than providing a quality product that will last.

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