"This car is going to last me 20 years."
We all want to keep our cars for the long haul. Yet very few of us ever see our beloved rides reach that 20th birthday.
Leaks, defective designs, multiple part failures, and even rust still conspire to turn our short term investment into a long-term divestment.
Does it always have to be this way? I believe the short answer to that is, "Hell No!" Here's a short list of what automakers do to make you open your wallet at around the 10 to 15 year mark, and how you can easily overcome their selfish "Scrooge" behavior.
1. They Convince You They Use A Lifetime Fluid!
When automakers use the term "lifetime" to describe their engine coolant and transmission fluids, they strictly mean the lifetime of their warranty.
Over time these fluids lose their effectiveness. Transmissions will shift in a noticeably awkward way. Engines and the rest of the powertrain are exposed to more heat as coolant wears out. Eventually that smooth shifting $20,000+ ride of yours will starts needing four-figure repair jobs. By the second or third big bill, your former pride and joy starts looking like a pile of junk. But it's not.
Brake jobs can also be incredibly expensive. Automakers offer brake pads that give off a screeching sound when they're due and go to great lengths to keep brake fluid in a heavily protected environment. Unfortunately brake fluid is also hygroscopic. It absorbs water which corrodes the braking system. When a car needs an expensive brake job, more times than not it's due to having never changed the brake fluid.
Solution: Change all of these fluids every three years or fifty thousand miles. The long-term difference between a smooth shifting car with 200,000+ miles that can go across the country with ease, and a car with 150k miles that is paid for with peanuts at trade-in time, is the fluids that go directly into the engine and transmission.
Remember that smooth, cheap rides are kept. Expensive, jerky ones are not. So ignore the automakers and keep those fluids pure.
2. They Help You Turn Your $20,00 Car Into A $20,000 Toilet
Automakers want you feel right at home in your car. That is why most new vehicles have countless storage bins, cubby holes and cupholders for you to hold all your crap.
Eventually, all that crap will help wear out the suspension. Make the car begin rusting on the inside (thanks to leaks and spills), and make that daily rider as smelly and unpleasant as a classic Crapper from Deliverance country.
Solution: Clean up. Not just your interior. But also your trunk which is where a lot of the rust and smells start from. Many folks out there use their trunks as a mobile garbage compactor for juice boxes, water bottles, half empty containers of motor oil, tampons, and God knows what else.
Don't be like them. Avoid the temptation of becoming a mobile hoarder and you should see that car last you for many more years. Remember folks. When it comes to keeping a car for the long haul, it's the owner that makes all the difference.
3. They Discourage You From Opening The Hood
Seals, gaskets, hoses, caps, and clamps all wear out in time. Plastic parts eventually chip away and crack. Hoses will develop tears and leak. Seals get loose and saturated. Clamps rust and break off. You wouldn't notice on a new car, though, because they've hidden all these pieces below a giant plastic engine cover.
Unfortunately your car likely has hundreds of these components. So how do you keep track of them all?
Solution: Like any long distance runner, watch your liquids. All of these parts we described have the unique purpose of keeping the essential liquids inside your car. So when you fill up at a gas station, open the hood and see if the oil dipstick and your other fluid levels are the same as before. If it's not, get it looked at from the get go.
4. They Make You Think Of Your Car As An Appliance And Not A Machine
There are over 3,000 parts that make up your car. Some are built to last. Others were nickled and dime by a company bean counter well before you were given the keys. If you think your car is a refrigerator and not something highly complex, you'll ignore it until it's too late.
Solution: Two things. First, have an independent mechanic you can trust offer an extra pair of eyes so that those small problems, such as the disappearing fluids we mentioned earlier, are solved before they get big. Second , visit enthusiast forums for your vehicle. That way you know potential problems before they cost you big money.
Automakers don't share issues with their customers until the last possible moment. Enthusiasts go out of their way to help each other at the earliest possible moment. Rely on the later.
5. They Don't Tell You What To Replace When And If They Do They Hide The Info In The Owner's Manual... Where Many Will Never Find Them
Nearly every vehicle has some type of nasty issue that is too expensive to be ignored. Yet is too far down the road to be willingly recalled by the automaker. They range from leaking valve cover gaskets and radiator caps. To failed intake manifolds and window regulators.
Solution: Plan to replace those components, or the fluids within them, before they give you trouble. When your car goes in for that big maintenance overhaul, which usually ranges from 60k miles to 120k miles, take extra care and budgetize to replace those things that seem to wear out according to the enthusiast forums and your mechanic. If you've got a good mechanic (even one from a dealership) they'll let you know.
Many of these items are not listed in the owner's manual, and even if they are automakers know the percentage of people reading the manual is fairly small.
6. They Give You Cheap Parts And Encourage You To Stay Cheap
Cheap parts not only make your car cheaper and more profitable to sell new, they also can garner an extra parts sale or two for the manufacturer long after the warranty period runs out.
Solution: Don't replace cheap with cheap. Find out what the actual owners are using at the enthusiast forums we mentioned earlier, and use those parts instead.
7. They Isolate You From Your Car's Problems
Don't neglect your driving experience. Yes, we know that radios are meant to be heard, but sometimes keeping them quiet and listening to your car instead will have a greater impact on your life than the new Ricky Martin song. Or the 27th angry white man on talk radio pretending to be a drugged up Rush Limbaugh.
Solution: Make it a point to listen to your car after you leave a gas station. Are your tires loud? Is the car drifting to the left or right? Does something just not sound right to you? 99% of the time your ears and eyes will be the only fail-safes you have when you're on the road.
So take the time to listen to your car.
8. They Convince You Your Car Can't Rust
The double sided galvanized steel that make up the body and frame of your car may have been given countless chemical treatments at the factory to stave off the angel of death. Automakers will convince you your car can't rust, but if you live in an area where salt and moisture frequently mix, not even a thousand Hail Marys will save your ride from the crusher unless you protect it.
Solution: Clean your undercarriage at least once a week during the snow season and take care to isolate it from the elements. An indoor garage along with a good washing can add years to the powertrain and paint job.
But what if you don't have a garage?
Then use a waterproof car cover when the weather permits. Get those scratches that go past the paint surface repaired, and then wax your car at least once a year.
Wanna pay for a Caribbean cruise every December instead of a finance company? Then pursue the path of the "keeper" and take good care of your car.
The automakers will never thank you for it. But hey! We will!
Steve Lang has been in the automotive remarketing business since 1999. His work as an auto auctioneer, car dealer, wholesaler, and inventory manager for an auto finance company has taken him across the country and back. He's also a longtime columnist for The Truth About Cars.