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Resisting new car purchases can pay off

Posted by Craig Fitzgerald  February 19, 2011 09:00 AM

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For a time, Americans were turning in their new cars at a breakneck pace. Cheap financing, good deals, a strong used car market, and a robust economy meant that we could justify keeping a car for less time than a traditional lease, and only see a modest increase in our monthly payment, if any increase at all.

Those days are apparently over, at least for the short term.

R.L. Polk, which collects and measures data in the automotive industry like Nielsen records our television habits, says that we're now keeping our cars longer than we ever have. According to Polk's study of registration data, Americans are keeping new cars for an average 63.9 months — five-and-a-quarter years — up 4.5 months from the same period in 2009. We're keeping used cars longer, too. The average length of ownership for a used car is 46.1 months, up 3.7 months from the same period in 2009. Data for new and used cars combined sees an average length of ownership to 52.2 months.

In truth, there's not much need to turn a car in on any kind of schedule. By following proper maintenance, it's relatively simple to squeeze a decade or 150,000 miles out of a new car with no major issues. The routine "tune-up" items that used to require replacement every 15,000 miles — spark plugs, plug wires, distributor caps, rotors — are now good for 100,000 miles, if they're even in the car anymore. Platinum spark plugs, combined with an incredibly efficient internal combustion engine, can last just as long. Newer ignitions, with an ignition coil pack for every cylinder, means that the caps and rotors are history.

Back in 2006, Medway resident Scott Whelan purchased a 2006 Chevrolet Silverado four-wheel drive pickup, in the mid-level LT trim. "Based on prior experience, I thought I'd have it for the long run," Whelan says. "I wasn't anxious to get into another payment, though. I know my challenge is to resist impulse buying."

In 2006, the sticker price on a Silverado was $32,000, but thanks to a model changeover for 2007 and a timely purchase in October when dealers were trying to move any remaining inventory, Whelan purchased the truck for $22,700. At five years of age, with 75,000 miles showing on the odometer, he has no intention of turning it in at any point in the near future. "My goal is to run it to 160,000 miles and evaluate my options from there," he says.

He's fastidious about regular maintenance. He does the lube, oil, and filter service himself. Beginning at 65,000 miles, he made the switch to full synthetic lubricant, which costs more, but generally extends the life of the moving parts in the engine. "Since I was doing the oil changes myself, it made sense to spend the extra money on the oil. It's still less expensive than having it changed at a 'quick lube' type of place, which I generally don't trust anyway," he says. He gives the waste oil to a friend who burns it in the winter to heat his garage so that it doesn't collect at the house.

So we turn cars in not because we need to, but because we want to. Call it the "Four Year Itch." We get bored of the same old car in the driveway every morning. Our eyes wander whenever we see a car ad, or a slick photo layout in one of the glossy magazines. It may be "'til death do us part" with our spouses and significant others, but when it comes to cars, we're unabashedly unfaithful.

Like a long weekend on the Cape, a spa treatment or a change in hairstyle, there's a limitless number of tweaks and modifications we can perform to reignite the romance. The Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) — the trade association that represents the aftermarket industry — noted that in the first quarter of 2010, consumer demand for aftermarket products reached a frenzied pace.

SEMA produces a Consumer Demand Index Report that retailers use as a forecasting tool, and late in 2010 it showed that consumer demand for aftermarket products had recovered since the economic downturn, and reached its highest level since July 2009. The index predicted that 15 percent of American households would purchase some kind of accessory for their car by the end of the year, and that car dealerships were the most popular purchase destinations.

In an effort to stave off the impulse to purchase another truck, Whelan has been regularly upgrading the truck he has. Soon after he purchased it, he bought chrome steps for $300. In 2007, he added a custom dual exhaust with Flowmaster mufflers for another $300. In 2008, it was a set of new 17-inch alloy wheels and tires — takeoffs from a new Cadillac Escalade that was fitted with aftermarket wheels — that he found on Craigslist for $600. "I needed new tires anyway, and the whole package cost me less than a set of new tires," says Whelan.

In 2009, he added a high-flow intake system for $200. In 2010, the inside of the bed was starting to show some age, so he had a spray-in bedliner applied at a cost of $500. This month, Whelan says he will replace his stock radio with a Jensen head unit installed, which includes a jack for an iPod.

Whelan figures he's put the average of about two payments a year into regular improvements meant to keep the truck fresh. "I've found that making a modification here and there keeps me happy. That, and the thought of having a payment again, with big excise tax bills and another sales tax payment has been enough to suppress my urges," he says. "The truck's five years old now, and I have a couple of scuffs and scratches, but I think I prefer that now, rather than having to worry about getting scratches in a new truck."

Craig Fitzgerald is a former editor of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car and can be reached at vespafitz@gmail.com.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
In the garage: 1995 21-speed Iron Horse, 2002 Jeep Wrangler X (by association)
Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
In the garage: 2006 Subaru Baja
AAA's Car Doctor, John Paul John Paul is public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England, a certified mechanic, and a Globe columnist. He hosts a weekly radio show on WROL.
In the garage: Hyundai Sante Fe, Chrysler PT Cruiser convertible
Craig Fitzgerald has been writing about cars, motorcycles, and the automotive industry since 1999. He is the former editor of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.
In the garage: 1968 Buick Riviera, 1996 Buick Roadmaster, 1974 Honda CB450
Keith Griffin is president of the New England Motor Press Association and edits the used car section on About.com. He also writes for the Hartford Business Journal and various weekly newspapers in Connecticut.
In the garage: Mazda 5, Dodge Neon
George Kennedy is a senior writer for WheelsTV in Acton, which produces video reviews for Yahoo, MSN, and other auto websites.
In the garage: Lifted 1999 Jeep Cherokee
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