mileage vs. age in used cars
December 28, 2006 10:22 AM   Subscribe

All other things being equal, do I pick the older car with lower mileage or the later model with high mileage?

I've seen the other thread, but I'm looking for advice that's a little more specific to my situation.

I'm buying my first car. It will be used, probably purchased privately, and it will cost less than $5000. It will probably be a Honda, Toyota, or Subaru (for their known reliability, etc). I also need an automatic transmission & four doors, which limits things a little when I'm looking for cheap cars. I live in Maryland, in case climate matters.

Should I go for lower mileage (under 100K, but probably over 80K from what I've seen) or for something that's newer but with high mileage? What about "really new" cars (say, 2001) that have 150K (or even more) on them? Let's say all the cars have been used for the same kind of driving (highway vs. city) and have been maintained equally well.

One thought I've heard is that ultimately it's rust, not usage, that kills cars, and cars rust regardless of how much they've been driven...hence newer is better, even with high mileage. I'm not sure if that makes sense, though. I had set 100K as an arbitrary limit, but I'm starting to wonder if that's silly.
posted by needs more cowbell to Travel & Transportation (17 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
How much driving do you plan to do? Some wear and tear on a car is from driving, and some is from age. If you don't plan to drive great distances, go with the newer car. Things like paint and exhaust systems have more to do with age than distance driven. If you plan to drive long distances, go with the lower milage car. If you'll put enough miles on it within a year or so to equalize the difference between the two, then you'll have fewer problems with the lower milage car.
posted by cosmicbandito at 10:26 AM on December 28, 2006

Every model has its 'mileage point' at which it's important to address bits of maintenance: a Honda with 95K might not have had the timing belt and water pump replacement that's recommended around 100K, while the one with 150K almost certainly has. So you might end up better off with a car past 'the ton' that's had its service.

I suppose one issue is whether you're looking to re-sell privately at some point, or are content to drive it into the ground and part-ex.
posted by holgate at 10:38 AM on December 28, 2006

I generally go for old cars with low mileage, but cosmetic appearance isn't important to me. I drive a 97 Saturn that I've owned for 4 years. Bought it with only 35,000 miles on it and it's never given me any mechanical problems. Since Saturns are made of plastic (OK, fiberglass) there's no rust, but it has gotten a bit rattly lately.
posted by scratch at 10:44 AM on December 28, 2006

I was in the same situation about a week ago; looking to buy a car for $5k. At first, I had my eyes set on a foreign car for the reasons that you describe, but I quickly realized that prices on those cars are often inflated, and it's hard to find one in that price range because no one wants to get rid of theirs!

I ended up getting a copy of the Consumer Reports Used Car Guide (on reccomendation by AskMe) and seeing what they had to say. Naturally, they gave pretty much all used Toyotas, Hondas, and Subarus great ratings, but there were also some unexpecteds. I ended up getting a Ford Taurus, which is a good car that loses value quickly in the used market, for $3800. It has about 50k miles on it. It's not as snazzy as one of the cars that you mentioned above, and it might not be the one for you. The point is, though, if possible I would keep my eyes peeled for other cars... you may end up getting a better deal.
posted by rossination at 10:57 AM on December 28, 2006

Since Saturns are made of plastic (OK, fiberglass) there's no rust

There's no body panel rust, sure, but there's lots of steel on a Saturn to rust. Shock towers, exhaust components, etc.
posted by mendel at 10:59 AM on December 28, 2006

I'm sure you can find a good condition Toyota Corolla for $5k. If so, put it at the top of your list. There's a reason you see a million of those cars on the road: they're boring, and they're just about bulletproof.
posted by schoolgirl report at 11:14 AM on December 28, 2006

schoolgirl's logic also applies to Honda Civics.
posted by ilsa at 11:39 AM on December 28, 2006

Slightly OT, but one of the oddities here are national attitudes. The same Honda Civic that would be considered virtually ready for the scrap heap in the UK with 80k miles I saw on sale in the US as "run in."

Generally in the UK 10k pa is considered standard - what would the US equivalent be?
posted by A189Nut at 11:40 AM on December 28, 2006

Preventative maintenance is the single most important factor in vehicle longevity. I'd focus more on documented maintenance. Particularly with automatic transmissions, I'd run screaming from any 100K mile car that could not document an ATF flush at least ever 30-40K miles. I'd also want to see documentation on oil changes every 3000-5000 miles, all all the major service intervals in the manual. The owners manual service schedule is designed to get the car to 100K, ideally when buying a used car you want to see preventative maintenance that exceeds the manufacturer recommendations. When you find a car you really like don't be afraid to ask the owner to meet you at the shop of your choice and pay the $100 odd bucks for them to give it a close look. If you are buying from a dealer get a 72 hour return guarantee to give yourself time to get the car examined.

Brand of car today matters is not that critical, with the exception of avoiding lemons. Check the used car repair reports in Consumer Reports. The previous maintenance will have a lot more to do with how trouble free your car is.
posted by COD at 11:42 AM on December 28, 2006 [2 favorites]

In 2000, I bought a 1996 VW Jetta with 113,000 miles on it. I drove it for 2 years and sold it with 150,000 miles on it. Very few issues in those 2 years and sold it for a few hundred dollars more than i owed on it. It was a great car.

Generally, American-brand cars with high miles tend to be in worse shape than foreign-brand cars with high miles and break down more frequently after 100K miles. For intance, Volvo actually has a 100,000 mile club where you can get a little decal/plaque thing to put on the back of your car once you reach that mark.

I'm driving a 1997 Ford Escort with 53K miles on it. Very reliable right now but I expect it to start falling apart in the next 20K miles since it's mostly a city-driving car and NYC roads and aggressive/defensive driving tends to put a lot of wear and tear on cars.
posted by camworld at 11:45 AM on December 28, 2006

ilsa : schoolgirl's logic also applies to Honda Civics.

Actually, in my neck of the woods, Hondas tend to have inflated prices. Mainly because they are so popular with the tuner community. Very well made cars, to be sure. But faced with a $5k Toyota or a $5k Honda, I'd have to take the Toyota. Odd are it will be more car for the money.

(Your area may be different though, so don't dismiss Honda's out of hand.)
posted by quin at 12:52 PM on December 28, 2006

Response by poster: Some clarifications:
-I've already read Consumer Reports on used cars, and I do consider other makes that they say are "best bets." I haven't seen much that fits those criteria besides the Hondas and Toyotas, though.

-I'm probably not going to drive huge distances--right now I need to get to work (7 miles away) and back, and I'd like the car to be sturdy enough that I could take a 4-hour trip every so often without being afraid the car will fall apart.

-I doubt I'll re-sell privately, and if I do, it would be because I magically have a very lucrative job somehow. So, resale value doesn't matter.

-appearance doesn't matter either

I'm sure you can find a good condition Toyota Corolla for $5k
I have seen some, but most have upwards of 100K miles on them. (Older cars with lower mileage seem to be mostly bigger cars--Camry/Accord/Mazda 626). That's my conundrum! I'm trying to decide if I should even look at the high-mileage ones.
posted by needs more cowbell at 3:35 PM on December 28, 2006

Remember also that all miles are not equal. All else being equal (all recommended maintenance done according to schedule) I would much rather have a two-year-old car with 100,000 highway miles than a five-year-old car with 50,000 city miles. Stop-and-go driving and short trips that don't get the car up to normal operating temperature are considerably harder on a vehicle than long freeway trips at relatively steady speeds.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 3:57 PM on December 28, 2006

I suppose I could've read the "more inside" a bit closer.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 4:00 PM on December 28, 2006

True, miles are more important than age. But note that a newer car is more likely to have more safety features (more airbags, traction control, stability control, abs) than an older model. For civics and corollas this might not be an issue, but something to consider.
posted by drmarcj at 8:00 PM on December 28, 2006

Every model has its 'mileage point' at which it's important to address bits of maintenance: a Honda with 95K might not have had the timing belt and water pump replacement that's recommended around 100K

Just wanted to restress this. If you get a Honda that is hovering around the 100K mark, it's imperative that it's had this work done, or you factor it into the price of the car. Getting a new timing belt is spendy and annoying and there are some folks who would be selling their Hondas at around this time because they didn't want to deal with the work/cost. I got an Accord with 100K miles on it from a dealer up here for just under 5K and have been really happy with it. Just anecdotal, but it's easy to fix, easy to maintain, dull as dishwater and 50K miles later, still runs like it did when I got it.
posted by jessamyn at 8:18 PM on December 28, 2006

Thirding the 100k major engine work thing--I bought a Civic for around $5k at 93k miles on it, and sure enough, at 100,000 miles I needed to spend an extra $4-500 replacing everything. It probably would have been more cost-effective to buy a Civic with 110 thousand miles, considering that the extra 17,000 miles wouldn't have changed the car much.
posted by maxreax at 12:31 AM on December 29, 2006

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