Should I buy a car with 170,000 miles on it?
July 29, 2014 4:25 PM   Subscribe

Good maintenance/car history/reliability/price versus everything else

So I am on the hunt for a new (used) car and am working within a limited budget. I have $4000-$7,500 to spend and am looking for:
- single owner if possible, maintenance records and a history that checks out
- manual transmission
- Japanese make or something else with that won't break down/cost me a lot in repairs

One option that came up in my search is a Scion XA 2006 with 170,000 miles. I had been generally limiting my search to 130,000 or less, but I like that model car because the reliability, good value and gas mileage. Anyway, the car meets a lot of my criteria. It has a spotless history in terms of no accidents, one owner, all maintenance records with regular oil changes, etc. It was used as a commuter car. If I were to get it checked out by a mechanic and I got the green light, would this worth consideration? Basically I'm looking for a "good enough" car that won't break and the idea of paying 3,000something for a XA instead of 6,000 for a Corolla or whatever is sort of appealing. The seller indicated that price was negotiable. For what price would this be a good deal or should I just look at other options? My heart isn't set on the car, just looking for some advice about buying high mileage if the car is a reputable make.
posted by mermily to Travel & Transportation (19 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
That seems like a hell of a lot of miles. My 2006 car has just crossed 80k, and I drive a fair bit. I would absolutely not buy that car.
posted by wrok at 4:28 PM on July 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

For $3000? No. For a few hundred bucks, sure. No more than a thousand.
posted by dmd at 4:36 PM on July 29, 2014 [4 favorites]

That's very high mileage. On the bright side highway miles are a lot easier on a vehicle than city driving, and it's unlikely that they put 21K a year on it in stop and go traffic. But still, I'd only consider it if *I* weren't planning to put miles on it very quickly, and then only if it were quite cheap.

Using a random Chapel Hill, NC zip code, Edmunds puts the private party value for this car at that mileage, in average condition, at about $2330. $3000something is what a dealer would want. A good deal would be trade-in value -- $1600 or less.
posted by jon1270 at 4:41 PM on July 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

That car is worth more than a thousand dollars.

Good cars will last for ages if they're maintained properly, as it sounds like this one has. Whether this car has too many miles is really up to you.

As for values like KBB / Edmunds, you actually might be best served looking at listings for other xAs near you. I've found that resources like KBB can be a little out of touch when it comes down to actual values, even though they ask for a zip code. Case in point, I just ran a KBB for a 2006 that sounds like the one you're describing, with another random Chapel Hill, NC zip, and it's anywhere from $2,917 for one in fair condition up to $4,056 for one in excellent shape, and that's with 170,000 miles. Looking at more local listings for these ought to give you a better sense of what you can expect to pay.

With the number of miles it does have, though, I'd look into whether it has major repairs scheduled to come up (things like recommended timing belt / chain replacements to be done soon, etc). In other words, do some maintenance "forecasting" and see if the car is likely to keep up its end of the bargain. For the money you're willing to spend, you might be able to find one with fewer miles if you thought you needed to.
posted by Chutzler at 4:54 PM on July 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

What a bombproof vehicle these are. And it's got a timing chain (not a belt) to boot. I don't know about the exact market prices, and maintenance records will be a huge plus, but if there was ever a vehicle where I wouldn't let 170k miles bother me, this would be the one.
posted by ftm at 5:00 PM on July 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

^Meant to include that those are private seller values.
posted by Chutzler at 5:03 PM on July 29, 2014

170,000 is a lot. And, I'm someone who drives cars into the ground and aims for 200-250K+ at a minimum. I'd hesitate to start out that high and I'd really want to get a comprehensive mechanic's check by someone who knows this model inside and out and I'd also want to see what major replacements/repairs have been done. Oil change records aren't nearly enough for a car that's been driven this much. And 3K? Only if it's not leaking any oil, transmission in good condition, newer spark plugs, alternator and battery new or functioning well, various replaced pumps (water pump for sure), CV joints/wheel bearings in good condition, recently replaced clutch, AC recently charged and compressor ok, timing chain & serpentine belt replaced or confirmed to be in good condition, good brakes and rotors, and newish tires. If there hasn't been significant work done to replace worn or soon to fail parts on this car, you could easily spend the asking price and more on repairs. Spending some money having an experienced mechanic review the records and inspect the car would be worth every penny. That said, little cars like this, when maintained well, can go into the 300K+ range fairly easily.
posted by quince at 5:09 PM on July 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

170K isn't as many miles as it used to be. All 3 of our cars have 220K+. I'll be driving one of them about 2,500 miles from TX to FL and back in a week or so, and I'm not worried a bit. I'd be more worried about the clutch if a lot of stop and go traffic has been in its past or will be in its future. Clutches are designed to wear out. It cost about $800 to replace the clutch in our 4 cylinder Corolla a few years ago. Plus, it's a pain to drive a standard in stop and go traffic.

BTW, if the AC has recently been charged, that is probably a bad sign. Just like your refrigerator, a car's AC system is a closed system that just keeps recirculating the same refrigerant ("Freon"). The refrigerant doesn't get used up and will never leak out unless something is broken. Both my 14 and 17 year old cars have never needed refrigerant and blow super cold air.

Good luck, and happy motoring!
posted by Daddy-O at 5:28 PM on July 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

I agree with quince. It all depends on what has been replaced. There's few cars that can hit 170k without a few major components needing replacement or overhaul or just wearing out. If not, then you're buying a financial time bomb and you might as well put the money you're going to spend on major maintenance into a better car to begin with. I'm especially thinking front end, suspension, electrical (esp alternator) and a/c, exhaust/catalytic converter, transmission, and at least a couple of complete brake jobs in that many miles. Not all of them, of course, but if absolutely nothing has needed replacement in 170k, then everything will start need replacement soon enough. A car with that much mileage can have a lot of newer parts in it that offset the miles a bit.
posted by spitbull at 5:36 PM on July 29, 2014

Mileage alone shouldn't disqualify this car. Just the fact that the owner has all the maintenance records indicate the the car was probably well taken care of. Take it to a mechanic, do a compression check and verify that nothing major has been abused or neglected. quince pretty much has all the major things I would have checked out covered but I would add that suspension parts are starting to get pretty well worn by this point and should be checked as well.
posted by Grumpy old geek at 6:31 PM on July 29, 2014

One question: How much driving are you looking to do? I'd be wary of this if you're in the market for a workhorse or something to drive for several years.

As people have noted, not a problem for cars to go over 200k, with the proper maintenance.

(I used to work with photojournalists who covered things across a pretty big area. They were all really good about maintaining their vehicles and chose vehicles with good reps. It was really common to see those folks w. cars and trucks that had gone well over 200k miles and were relaiably motoring along and in good condition.)
posted by ambient2 at 7:42 PM on July 29, 2014

Average mileage is 12,000 to 15,000 miles per year. A 2006 was likely put into service (Eg: purchased) sometime in 2005 but a carfax report will show you exactly when. In any case, they drove 18,000 to 21,500 miles per year. It's been my experience (as a car salesman and as someone whose father has been in the car business nearly long enough to have taken horses in on trade) that people who put that many miles on a car do it on the highway which causes very little wear.

Mercedes did a record setting run where three E 320 CDIs ran an average of 140mph for 30-days straight covering 100,000 miles EACH with no problems and it wasn't particularly hard on the engines.

So the mileage, in and of itself, in that time-frame wouldn't scare me. I'd just want a VERY thorough mechanics inspection, maintenance records, and some kind of background on how the car was used (hoping for something that includes most of the miles being put on driving on the highway).

I recall a few mentions in Car and Driver articles and letters that talk about most engines requiring "major" maintenance work around 150,000 miles. This would include changing the timing belt (which this car doesn't have since it uses a chain that never needs maintenance) and maybe changing the piston rings or something. See if you can find the maintenance schedule online and see what that calls for so ask about specifics.
posted by VTX at 7:45 PM on July 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Folks saying "only a couple hundred bucks" or "o hmy god that's a lot of miles" are overstating the case. It's not *not* a lot of miles, but it's not terrible. I've got a pickup with 230k, a 1994 Honda with 226k, and a 1970 Impala with 151k. My last beater econobox was a 1990 CRX that I drove from 180k to 240k with broken springs, and still it kept going. Point being, there are good cars out there with high mileage. If the maintenance has been dutifully performed, you may get a good car here. (for the record, I bought the 1994, four years ago 181k with a clean conscience.)

Find a suggested maintenance schedule for that vehicle. Compare it to the maintenance records. Make sure any major scheduled repairs - fluid changes outside of oil changes, timing chain/water pump, etc - were done in a semi-timely manner. Have a mechanic check the compression, all the suspension bushings, the shifter linkage, and the brakes - at this point, the lines and calipers probably have outlived their service life, and pad changes should have had rotors changed as well (not just a pad slap).

That many miles on that young a car suggests salesman, who would have written off the maintenance, so would be more likely to have done the maintenance. That bodes well; just make sure your mechanic is thorough.
posted by notsnot at 8:05 PM on July 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: A little follow up: I live a half mile from my work and also live in a small town, so I don't put very many miles on cars (I owned my last car from '09-'14 and put 20k miles on it during that time, so four thousand miles per year). Scion XAs actually are bomb proof (and cheap) so that's why I was looking hard at them.

Also I have been looking hard for a few weeks and Chapel Hill's market is such that for under 5-6k there are tons of salvage vehicles, and pimped out/tinted/rimmed things that people have lost interest in, but not many reliable vehicles with an apparently reputable history. Getting anything vaguely worthwhile (i.e. that Scion) for under 1k is just not a possibility.

Anyway, so that's my additional info. Thanks for your advice. Esp. maintenance schedules and suggested things to check out.
posted by mermily at 8:58 PM on July 29, 2014

Best answer: Former 2006 Scion xA owner here. I had to ditch my car when I moved from the US to the UK, but if I hadn't moved, I would have kept that little car and driven it until it fell to pieces because I love the xA so much. Before the xA, I also owned a car that had about 160K on it, and that was a bad idea.

Here are some things to consider:

The xA has been driven slightly more than average mileage, meaning that person either had long commutes or did a lot of roadtripping. None of these things are inherently bad, but it does mean that more strain than usual has been put on the car, and therefore regular maintenance is really important. Regular maintenance doesn't just mean regular oil changes, but also regular inspection of the bits of the car that can degrade over time, such as timing belts and hoses. If you look through the maintenance records and you don't see evidence of changing of belts, hoses, filters, batteries, spark plugs, and brakes, this would be bad sign.

You also want to know how the car has been stored. Has it lived in a garage at night? Does it get parked outside? How wet is the weather? A lot of weather conditions will dictate how much rust is on the chassis. Buying a car with a rusty chassis is a bad idea.

150-175K in most cars is usually when big ticket items like the radiator, alternator, and sometimes even the transmission will go kaput and need replacing. Especially if the xA is a manual, this about the time when the clutch will go or some other transmission part may already be halfway out the door.

It's also worth considering that the xA isn't manufactured anymore, so it might be slightly harder to find parts for it. I don't exactly know how many parts in the xA are shared between other Scion/Toyota makes, but I can imagine that if you damage it, certain body parts may be more difficult to find as time goes on.

I would definitely check out that all the car parts are the original. Sometimes people get into small accidents and don't report that. Definitely get a CarFax history to cover the big accidents (it is never worth just trusting a used car seller's word that they haven't had an accident, you always want to have ALL the knowledge that you've dug up yourself) if you can get your hands on the VIN. All Toyotas also have a little sticker with the VIN on all the major body parts (doors, hood, trunk. etc) of the car, so you know which parts are original. If there are any parts that don't have the VIN on them, they have been replaced since the car has left the factory, and you can conclude that the car has likely been in an undisclosed accident.

I bought my 2006 xA used, and the seller and I drove it over to a reputable mechanic. (You can check either Yelp or CarTalk's Mechanic Files for reviews.) It cost me about $75 to get the car checked over, and the mechanic will give it a good once over. He should check everything about the car internally (engine parts, hoses, belts, fluid levels, etc.) as well as externally (tire wear, brake wear, rust or other parts of the chassis). Given that the car is this old, you want to ask him to evaluate the cooling system (radiator), the electrics (distributor, battery, alternator, etc.), and the transmission especially. If you find anything that will need replacement now or very soon, you can use that to negotiate the price down.

I know that Toyotas/Scions are very good, but I wouldn't put much stock in this one. Over 150K is already really high mileage, and even in good condition, I wouldn't expect the car to live much past 180-200K without having to put out for significant repairs. I love the Scion xA, but it might be worth to shop around a little longer to see if you can find something that is 100-120K, or even lower. You can ask the owner why they're selling the car now, but given the age and the mileage, my guess is that they are trying to get rid of it to some poor sucker before the big ticket repairs roll around, which will be soon. Really soon.
posted by the_wintry_mizzenmast at 3:08 AM on July 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

it does mean that more strain than usual has been put on the car

This is not necessarily true and that is the point of my previous post. Most of the wear or strain on a car's engine happens while it is warming up followed by accelerating (Eg, driving around town or in heavy traffic). Steady, highway speeds for long periods of time cause virtually no stress on on engine (or transmission for that matter). The OP's half-mile commute will cause FAR more strain on the drive-train than a 30 mile commute would (assuming the 30-mile commute is mostly highway). I'd be more wary of a car that had far fewer than average miles on it than I would be with one that was higher than normal.

If the explanation behind all those miles is something that involves lots of driving at steady-state highway speeds, it will probably have less wear than a car with half the mileage.

These high-mileage cars can often be a great bargain because the mileage drives the price down but, depending on how that mileage was put on the car, it doesn't actually cause all that much wear.

With a half-mile commute like that, you'll want to use the car once per week or maybe every other week to drive for about a half an hour at highway speed.
posted by VTX at 7:47 AM on July 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

A car engine is going to be engineered with a factor of safety to handle the stress of normal driving conditions. Car engines don't blow up when they have reached a certain number of miles. They do blow up (ok not catastrophically all the time) when people don't maintain their car and watch their gauges. The components in the engine do wear though, and that is usually what kills a car engine in the end if properly maintained. The valve guides, piston rings, and crankshaft bearings are going to be the big areas. Some cars do have other problem areas due to their design that are usually well documented.

Well the wear items are going to wear when the engine is running. Sure oil is there to help, but these items still wear. Ever seen a smoking car? If the smoke has a bluish color to it usually the valve guides or piston rings are worn, and the car is burning oil. How long does it take for that to happen? Well unfortunately we measure car use by miles instead of hours. It would be nice to know how many hours a car has run. A commuter car that was on the highway most of it's life shows a fairly accurate time for its life, but a city car may have spent as much as half of its running time stopped in traffic or at stoplights. That is time when the engine is running, but not accounted for in the miles of the car.

All of that said, there is no way to know how long a car will last. Yes, there is quality control from the factory, but there is no doubt that some cars are sloppier than others. There are cars that will roll off the assembly line, at no fault of the owner, that will have problems. If the engine is worn out now a mechanic should be able to pick up on that, and if it starts to wear out in the future it will likely a be a long process. You will at least have a year if not longer as long as you are monitoring oil levels and the gauges in the car.

A high mileage car has traveled a lot of miles, and I feel like the next biggest expense is going to be suspension. Struts are only part of the equation, but at some point bushings, ball joints, wheel bearings, etc. will start wearing out. These items are not particularly expensive parts, but they are labor intensive to replace. They also play a much larger part in the safety of the car as they relate to how the car handles and drives down the road. They will be more worn in a high mileage car.

This is all something a mechanic should be able to inspect, and report to you on. I do think $3000 is a little high, but I am in a different market. Considering a relatively low purchase price compared to typical repair costs don't be surprise if you end up paying a mechanic close to what you pay for the car over time. The surprise $500 here and surprise $1000 there can add up. Is the car worth it for twice the price? How does it compare to cars for twice the price? It is hard to speculate, but I wish you luck.
posted by ohjonboy at 11:58 AM on July 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

By 170K, every big, expensive system will have worn out and been replaced, sometimes more than once. Look at the major repair records. Has the transmission been replaced? If not, you have big buck repairs coming soon.

Check for body rust.

An older car will not have skid control, air bags or even anti-lock brakes. I'd advise going for something more recent.
posted by KRS at 1:24 PM on July 30, 2014

Super-late to this thread, but I just wanted to point out that the 2006 Scion xA does have air bags, anti-lock brakes, and electronic brake distribution.
posted by mbrubeck at 2:25 PM on October 8, 2014

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