My white 1998 Toyota Sienna minivan, which I lovingly refer to as “the Lamborghini,” has 156,712 miles on it, give or take. And I’m determined, come hell or high gas prices, to ride my beast to the 200,000 mile mark — even 250,000 if I can help it.
True, it’s sometimes hard to stay focused on that goal; I have friends who drive souped-up Audis and shiny black Beemers. My older brother and his wife own three Corvettes. Even my wife’s gold Hyundai Elantra looks spiffy compared to my bread box on wheels, painted such a nondescript shade of white that I’m often mistaken for the cable guy.
But I’ve never owned a new car, and I don’t think I’m missing a thing. For starters, a new car depreciates the second you drive it off the lot. And monthly car payments, whether by lease or purchase, saddle drivers with yet another monthly expense to bear.
How do I love driving my car to 200,000 miles? Let me count the frugal ways:
1. No car payments, ever.
I paid $10,000 cash for my car in August 2004, when it had a modest 53,000 miles on it. And that’s it. No bank interest. No lease payment. The Toyota’s all mine. (I wish I could say the same about my house.)
2. Cheaper to run in the long run.
It’s true that after 50,000 miles, many parts on a car will start to wear out. And I’ve had some years when I’ve paid as much as $2,400 for brakes, transmission fixes, power window motors and the like. Still, that comes to a modest $200 averaged over 12 months — a lot cheaper than even the most frugal car lease. And some years, I’ve had no repairs or issues at all other than routine maintenance, including in the last 12 months. I think that comes to a yearly average of, what, zero dollars a month?
3. Far fewer cosmetic repairs.
People who own shiny new cars obsess over every little nick, scratch and mark.
My younger brother, who drove a BMW, brought it in for service at least half a dozen times because the mildest of potholes would dent the wheel rims, and it drove him crazy. Those rims, he told me, cost more than $300 each. He wound up selling the car out of frustration (and four-wheel poverty, I think).
My car, though it looks fairly new, has some chips in the hubcaps, a large scratch on the windshield and seams in the paint where dents were pounded out. But when your car’s old, you fuss less about those cosmetic issues — which are costly issues, too.
Mechanics and auto body guys have a look at my car and marvel; they think 200,000 is a sure bet, unless the Sienna gets totaled in an accident. And it has been in two accidents recently — neither caused by me. But it always bounces back like an automotive Whack-A-Mole.
So how will I make it to 200K? These are the regimens I follow, and that experts suggest. They’re not all that expensive to observe, and I look at them as investments in a grand, money-saving adventure.
1. Change the oil religiously.
Thanks to places like Jiffy Lube, we’re all more conscious about the importance of oil changes. But for old cars, it’s even more crucial. It used to be recommended for every 3,000 miles, but the sages at cartalk.com say every 5,000 is just fine, unless you “drive like a knucklehead [with] jackrabbit starts, heavy acceleration or high-speed driving.”
Those in extreme climates should change the oil and filter more often, too. Synthetic oil better resists extreme temperatures, and you might want to consider it if your car has 100,000 miles or more, but ask your mechanic for a second opinion.
2. Keep your tires properly inflated and rotated.
We all know that tires inflated just right help save on gas mileage, but they also save wear and tear on your car, and reduce the risk of blowouts. And since this is a money website, let’s add that the average person who drives 12,000 miles yearly on under-inflated tires uses about 144 extra gallons of gas, at a cost of roughly $600 a year (given $4 a gallon gas), according to the federal government’s Fuel Economy website.
3. Read the owner’s manual and do all recommended maintenance.
It’s true, the owner’s manual will never rival a Jonathan Franzen novel for reading stimulation. But it contains car keys of another kind: the ones that tell you when to service your car’s most crucial systems. You should especially read the manual if you know little or nothing about cars in general, as it will help you track your baby’s needs.
4. Find a mechanic you can trust.
My mechanic Keiji is the sensei of Toyotas. It’s the only make of car he works on, and he knows them inside out. He’s saved me from a replacing my transmission by doing a simple repair that cost about $50. He knows my car better than I do; when I bring it in, it’s like he’s seeing an old friend (the car, I mean, though Keiji likes me, too). I found Keiji the only way you should ever find a mechanic: word of mouth from a thrilled customer.
Beware of websites like Angie’s List, which merchants have learned to game for inflated ratings, and which enters into paid marketing relationships with service providers, something the Better Business Bureau would never do. By the way, having a great auto body shop helps, and the team at A Carr’s Carstarr in Chicago has seen me through several accidents and mishaps without a hitch.
5. Never, ever ignore the warning lights.
Many drivers assume that the “check engine” light is something to ignore, like a muscle twinge. Or they think if it’s an old car, maybe the light is on the blink. Well, what if the car is on the blink?
About 2,000 miles from my next oil change, my oil light came on earlier this week. It would stay on, fade to black, then turn back on. I didn’t mess around: I went straight to the gas station and poured in two quarts of synthetic oil. The light went off. Easy … but I’ll be getting the Sienna to Jiffy Lube very soon, just to be on the safe side (and make sure I don’t have an oil leak).
6. Never, ever ignore odd noises.
What’s that knock? That grind? That shooga-shooga-rrr-rrr-rrr? Cars speak a funny language, and like horse whisperers, savvy mechanics know how to decipher it. (I know Keiji does.) When you car makes an unusual noise, don’t ignore it and hope it will go away: Get it checked out.
My mighty minivan will likely hit 200,000 miles, the automotive gods willing. Still, that’s nothing compared to guys like Joe LoCicero, who made it to 1 million miles on his 1990 Honda Accord in 2011. I’d love to hit that number. And who knows? Maybe the Sienna will cooperate, its bread-box profile gleaming in the sun, dings and all.
The question is, will some website like Money Over 85 let me write about it? Because by that time, I’ll be way too old to drive.
Okay, time to boast: How many miles have you driven a car?