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Old 09-28-2009, 07:40 AM   #1
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Post How to Make your car last 250,000 miles

Old re-post but still very good information to keep in mind.

Make your car last 250,000 miles
Small, routine steps taken throughout your vehicle'* lifetime can save you headaches and a lot of money in the long run. Here'* how to get the most out of your car.
By Liz Pulliam Weston

The interior door handles are held together with Krazy Glue. The gas gauge hasn't worked in at least 20,000 miles. It'* got dings and dents. But the old beast still runs -- and reliably so.
Not everyone wants to drive a car that just clicked over the 250,000-mile mark, as our 1993 Ford Explorer has. But most of us can, since today'* vehicles are better built than ever and can easily surpass 200,000 miles with regular maintenance (for more details, see "Cars that last a million miles").
Keeping an older car can save a ton of money. In my book "Deal With Your Debt," I figured that owning cars for 10 years instead of five could save the typical person a quarter-million dollars over a lifetime. Hanging on to your cars longer means:
  • Fewer car payments. Unless you take out a ridiculously long loan, you can be payment-free after four or five years. If you take care of the car, any repairs you'll need are likely to cost far less than you'd shell out in payments for another vehicle. (Our repair costs for this car for the past eight years, including a transmission rebuild and valve replacement, average out to about $83 a month.)
  • Lower insurance costs. Premiums tend to drop pretty steadily as your car ages. You can save even more by dropping collision and comprehensive coverage when your total premium exceeds 10% of the car'* fair market value (see "Dump the insurance on your clunker"). Our annual premium for this car is just $373 -- about $31 a month -- and that'* in Los Angeles, known for having pretty high insurance costs.
  • Time to save for the next car. Every month you can put off replacing a vehicle is another month in which you can build up your down payment for the next car. Put off the replacement long enough, and you could even pay cash.
So making your vehicle last as long as possible is clearly a smart move. That'* particularly true now as the economy slows. It'* not a great time to be adding a big expense like a car payment, as much as automakers would love you to do so.
You snooze, you lose
How do you get the most out of your car? Here'* what we did, based on advice from car experts:

Follow the maintenance schedule. Duh, right? Except many people don't, and this is where a few hundred bucks' worth of prevention each year can stave off thousands in repairs. Your owners manual details what you should do when, but you can also keep track online -- plus get reminders of upcoming services, safety recalls and even a running trade-in value -- with MSN Autos' My Car feature. You should budget $500 to $1,000 a year or more for these expenses, depending on the age and type of car;'* True Cost to Own calculator can give you an estimate of typical annual maintenance costs for most cars.
Also, keep a file of everything you've done to and for your car. Not only does that help you track when maintenance is due, but having the records can help with resale value.

Be alert for recalls. My Car allows you to print out recall notices for your car. You typically can take these notices to your local dealership and get the defects fixed for free.

Take it easy on the engine, Part I. I advocate buying used cars to save money, but one nice thing about owning a car from the start is that you get to be in charge of the break-in period, the first 1,000 miles or so a car runs. Keeping your speed below 55 mph and avoiding idling for long periods in these critical first miles can help prolong the engine'* life. Even afterward, it helps to avoid jackrabbit starts and racing the engine while it'* idling. You can reduce wear and tear even more by bunching your errands into fewer trips, since most of the damage done to an engine happens its first few minutes of operation.

Take it easy on the engine, Part II. Avoid towing or carrying heavy loads. The Explorer has a tow package, but we've used it only a handful of times to pull a trailer with light loads. If something bigger needs moving, we rent a truck. If you do tow heavy stuff, you can try to offset the strain by changing the oil and transmission fluid more often (your owners manual will offer suggestions), but we'd rather put that kind of stress on someone else'* engine.
Be diligent about oil changes. I've been known to go a couple years without a physical, and I occasionally forget to floss, but I'm pretty conscientious about getting the oil changed. The owners manual says to do it every 7,500 miles or six months under normal conditions, or 3,000 miles or three months under "unique driving conditions," such as towing, frequent short trips in freezing weather, stop-and-go driving in hot weather or driving through dust storms.
As the car has aged and I drive less, I've adopted a "3,000 miles or six months, whichever comes first" schedule. Usually, it'* the six months that comes first. I also use synthetic oil, which is probably overkill, but it gives me peace of mind.

With every oil change, check the fluids, belts, tire tread and hoses. If you're a do-it-yourselfer, these chores add just a few minutes to the job. If you're paying somebody else, these inspections may be included, or you can pay a few bucks extra to have them done (our mechanic charges $12 for a thorough check).
I have to say I'm not much of a fan of the chain oil-change places; the only time my Explorer ever stranded me was the year I tried to save money by using one of these outfits, and it failed to notice a belt that was about to break. Now I stick with a mechanic I know and trust (more on that later).

Have a fill-up routine. Pop the hood and check your oil. While you're there, wipe the battery clean with a damp towel and check for corrosion, cracks or bulges. Once you're done, check your tire pressure. (Use a digital gauge, which is more accurate; you can find them for $10 to $20. I found one that talks, which is completely unnecessary but kind of cool.) You don't have to do this every single fill-up, but shoot for every other time.

Find a good mechanic or become one. Our current mechanic won our hearts by scoffing when we suggested fixing the gas gauge. It was an expensive repair, he explained, and unnecessary if we just reset the trip odometer at every fill-up. When the trip odometer nears 200 miles, we head for a gas station. We trust him to let us know when a repair is necessary or smart, and his fees are reasonable (the My Car feature has a calculator to help you check these things).
Don't keep up with the Joneses
Do a walk-around. While studying for my pilot'* license, I was taught to do a "walk-around" -- a careful inspection of plane'* exterior to look for potential problems -- before climbing in the cockpit. Doing the same with the Explorer has helped me spot flat tires, fluid leaks and the SpongeBob SquarePants stickers my daughter likes to sneak onto every possible surface. A simple walk-around also can help you avoid running over anything that'* been left behind your car, from someone'* bike to (heaven forbid) someone'* kid.

Drive defensively. Your car will never be the same after it'* been in a major accident, and its useful life can be shortened significantly (assuming it'* not already totaled). So slow down, expect other drivers to be idiots, and don't be one yourself. That means hang up and drive.

Keep it clean and waxed. I'm less meticulous about this than my husband was when this was his primary car, but regularly clearing off the grime helps protect the exterior, as does a regular paste wax (as soon as water stops beading on the paint, it'* time to wax again). If you live in a cold-weather climate, it'* important to regularly sluice off the road salt, sand and slush to prevent rust and other damage.

Know when to fold. Consumer Reports says you should ditch a car when the cost of a repair exceeds its fair market value. We haven't gotten there yet, but my bright line for retiring this car will be when I can no longer trust it to get me from Point A to Point B. If one repair follows another, maybe it is better to bail, but it takes a lot of repairs to outweigh the cost of car payments (or the interest we'd lose by using savings to pay cash for the next car).

Refuse to care what other people think. I'm convinced that many, if not most, cars are traded in before their time simply because people become embarrassed about driving them. I've chosen to turn that thinking on its head by taking perverse pride in showing up with the oldest car at any restaurant, preschool party or local event I attend. My motto: "Laugh all you want. It'* paid for. Is yours?"
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