This may be hard to believe, but in the 1970s even teenagers could tell the model and year of most cars on the road at a glance. Today, once the outer configuration passes the wind tunnel tests, the manufacturer retains that appearance for several years. Because the wind is the same for everybody, models within a category look alike from afar, with only paint color, front grill, door handles and affixed logos differentiating them. No one makes a study of model and year anymore; even my mechanic asks the year of my Honda when I bring it in. Having a 5 year old car doesn’t make one a social pariah; it’s more likely no one even knows unless you tell them. If a 2009 passes for 2011, go for it. Only your mechanic needs to know for sure. This is the best way to save a ton of money on a used car; just say it’s newer.
What about mileage? Frankly, mileage doesn’t matter. The usable remaining life of a car at 26,000 miles or 51,000 miles is about the same. Why? Because how long the car lasts depends on you. Cars built in the past twelve years will live past 230,000 miles if averagely maintained. Driving 15,000 miles per year, that’s fourteen or twelve years of life left at those two mileages. Is that how long you’re keeping the car? I didn’t think so.
If you keep it for ten years the difference in trade-in value is under $50 for 176,000 miles vs. 201,000 miles on nearly all models. End of life maintenance costs might be several hundred dollars higher, but those costs come eight years from now when you have no monthly car payment. So paying an extra $1,500 today for a lower mileage car is not a good value.
The other reason mileage doesn’t matter is freeway miles are easier on the engine than city-only driving. Months of stop-and-go driving below 35 mph isn’t kind to an engine. I’m sure by now every driver has heard the advice to take the car on a 10 or 20 mile freeway jaunt a day or two before going for the annual emissions check, to clear the gunk out of the cylinders before the technician revs the engine on the test stand. It’s a reasonable assumption that a car driven less than 6,000 miles a year saw mostly three stop signs per mile street driving, while a car that racked up 25,000 miles per year must have had a great deal of 55 mph driving.
Whether the car burns oil at 80,000 miles or doesn’t start doing so until 130,000 miles depends on how well the first owner complied with the engine break-in period during the first 500 miles and the first oil change. Even if done badly, engine oil additives available in any big box or auto store can minimize the bad effects for a few years.
If your choice is between two same-model cars at the same price, one a 2009 car with 30,000 miles and one a 2010 car with 60,000 miles, pick the 2010 if routine maintenance adherence, optional equipment and engine type are reasonably equal. One year’s optional safety equipment becomes standard equipment the next year, and the high end luxury touches filter down to the low end models. A low-end model in 2013 has better standard safety equipment than the best options available in the top luxury models in 1990. Every car model is likely to have better safety equipment and additional luxury touches over the same model the year before.
We are living in a sweet spot where high mileage makes the asking price of a newer car lower than the price of an older car simply because the old guys running the dealerships still think mileage matters. If you intend to own this car for 9 years then who cares how much life is left after you sell it. Newer is better, period.
Take advantage of the high mileage price breaks to get a better car for your money within the same year. In some cases low mileage could indicate long spells of no driving. The car may have sat unused for months, been involved in an accident, or the owner didn’t trust it for long trips. Low mileage needs an explanation; high mileage doesn’t.