The Best Measure of a Car’s Useful Life Is Mileage

Dear Car Talk: I have a 2003 Honda Element EX. I love the vehicle. It’s the best vehicle I’ve ever owned (and I have owned 17 cars total). My wife offered to buy me a new 2011 Element when I turned 40. At the time, I told her my 2003 Element was perfect. The interior has dog hair in the cracks, the dash is scratched from loads of lumber and pipes, it was the car we took on our first date — and it was paid for in full.

Honda stopped making the Element in 2011, and I now regret declining the offer. My 2003 Element has 197,000 miles on it. It runs well but burns and leaks oil, and the transmission is slipping. And in 3,000 miles I’m due for a major service. That service and some now necessary repairs will cost me about $4,000.

Or I could buy a 2008 Honda Element EX with only 37,000 miles that has some front-end damage for about $3,000. I think I can fix the 2008 for about $3,500. Should I keep and fix my trusted and beloved 2003 Element with all the problems I know well, or buy the younger, lower miles Element and sell my current one, which is worth about $3,500 as is? Thanks. — Bill

Cars are not spouses, Bill. They don’t love you back. Nor do they keep your house. So when it comes to cars, we fully endorse trading for a younger model. Especially in your case. Despite our romantic notions, cars don’t get better with age. They wear out.

They have a useful life. And for a while, you can replace parts and keep them serviceable. But at some point, they start falling apart faster than you can put them back together. And at that point, the cost becomes prohibitive, even if the inconvenience doesn’t.

And the best measure of useful life? Mileage. It’s not perfect, because some people beat up their cars with stop and go traffic and potholes, and some people baby their cars on smooth highways. But generally speaking, a car with lower mileage will have a more useful life than a car with higher mileage.

And in your case, it’s not even close. You’re talking 197,000 miles vs. 37,000 miles. That’s 160,000 fewer miles! Think of it this way: If you were sponsoring a life insurance policy with your own money, would you write one for a 90-year-old or a 20-year-old?

So absolutely grab the 2008 Element with 37,000 miles while you can. And you can either sell your 2003 Element for $3,500 (although with a slipping transmission, good luck), or you can keep it as a parts car. Keeping it as a parts car has a couple of advantages. You’ll still be able to sit in it, breathe in the old car smell and reminisce. And you can take your time transferring over all the old dog hair.

Todays Car-o-Scope

What the stars say about your car for 11/24/2020
You will have a positive impact on someone in your life this week: Your mechanic will get an exciting boat upgrade.
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