How Many Miles Can a Car Last? Predicting Your Car’s Life

Instrument cluster odometer display with high mileage

There is a lot of underlying stress when it comes to owning a high-mileage car. It feels like there’s something looming on the horizon, and your car will randomly stop working one day. Well, that’s not entirely true. In fact, your car might not actually be “high mileage”. It’s all a matter of how many miles your car will last.

The mileage of your car really depends on how you treat it. Driving safely, smoothly, and routinely taking care of maintenance will lengthen its life. The average car lasts an estimated 12.6 years, but it’s very possible for your car to last much longer than that.

If you want to know more about this topic, I’m here to help. This article is all about predicting your car’s lifespan. I’m going to talk about why mileage matters, how many miles your car can last, and some simple tips to keep your car alive for longer.

How Mileage Affects Your Car

When you’re shopping for a car, mileage is one of the biggest stressors. Why does it even matter so much?

Well, mileage is one of the biggest indicators to predict your car’s life. It affects your car on a daily basis and paints a partial story for anyone who learns about your mileage.

Every mile driven brings your car closer to the end of its life. You should still plan on racking up as many miles as possible on the odometer, though.

BMW coupe driving on the bridge

Cars are all about statistics and numbers. If you drive 100,000 miles, the odds are much higher you’ll run into problems as compared to a car with 100 miles on it.

Things wear out over time. As precise as a car might be, there are still areas where problems can occur. Friction adds up as the miles go on, meaning internal components will start to break.

This is why routine maintenance is such a huge deal in the car world. Changing your oil, rotating your tiles, and swapping out filters will help negate the toll that driving puts on your car (I know, ironic right?).

Also, the longer you drive, the higher chance your car has of something randomly going very wrong. Parts can unexpectedly break without any heads up.

Caution: Not All Miles are Equal

I’m going to be talking about miles a lot in this article. I want to take a break to highlight the fact that mileage is not a universal language.

A thousand miles driving in New York City will affect your car differently than a thousand miles driving along the windy roads of Wyoming.

SUV driving down the coast with a road trip sign

It’s less about the mileage and more about how the car is driven over those miles.

A highly aggressive driver will wear out their car quicker than a slow and methodical driver.

These are the key reasons why it’s often hard to predict an exact mileage that your car will last before it comes to the end of its life.

How I Define Your Car’s “Life”

Using the word “life” when talking about a car might seem strange. It’s not like the odometer ticks to a certain number and then the car just flips belly-up and never turns on again.

In my opinion, your car’s life is over when:

  • Something breaks and it costs too much money to fix it
  • It gets in an accident and is deemed “totaled” by insurance
  • It breaks down so often that it’s not worth the hassle anymore
  • The problem you keep trying to fix doesn’t get better

How Many Miles Can a Car Last?

Looking at those four criteria that I just explained, you’ll notice that there’s a lot of luck involved. A new car can get totaled right when it’s driven off the lot. That has nothing to do with you, the car, or its expected lifespan.

VW van driving on the coast with sunset

On the other hand, there are things that you can do to prevent (or at least postpone) these things from happening. In this example, expressing an exaggerated sense of safety while driving might have avoided the accident.

In the other cases, there are some simple tips, which I’ll go over later, that can prolong when these events happen.

Breaking News: It’s Inevitable

Before talking numbers, let’s talk about a simple fact: your car will inevitably die. Every car, given enough time, will die.

I only say that so that you don’t put so much stress on the idea of keeping your car alive forever. Sure, it’s nice to extend your time with your car as long as possible, but that doesn’t mean you should avoid driving it.

Cars are meant to be driven until they can’t drive anymore (in my opinion). It’s okay though, you did nothing wrong.

Looking at Some Record Holders

One legend that I’ve talked about a lot in the past is Irv Gordon. He drove his original 1966 Volvo P1800 more than 3.2 million miles.

He sadly passed away recently, so that odometer figure isn’t going to change. You have to admit that’s an impressive number.

Volvo P1800
Irv Gordon – Volvo P1800

The most interesting part is that it still used the original engine block and transmission up until the last mile. The engine was completely rebuilt a few times, but that’s not uncommon for high-mileage cars.

Behind him is a 1976 Mercedes 240D with 2.85 million miles, a 1979 Volvo 245 GL with 1.63 million miles, and a 1963 Plymouth Fury with 1.62 million miles.

The Average Mileage That a Car Drives

Does this mean that the average car can rack up a million miles? Not quite.

A 2015 study by R.L. Polk found that the average lifespan of cars at the time was 11.4 years. In the 20 years studied, there was a 35% increase in vehicle life. Extrapolating this data suggests that the average life of a 2021 vehicle should be about 12.6 years.

If you want to convert these years into miles, it’s simple. The US. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration recently released data saying that the average American drives 13,500 miles each year.

Multiply that figure by the average estimated lifespan of 12.6 years and what do you get? Cars should go an average of 170,000 miles before dying.

Black Toyota Camry driving down the road
Toyota Camry

Mind you, that’s just an average. You might have a car that’s still going strong at 400,000 miles. Well, there’s someone else’s car which stopped running at 20,000 miles. That’s the beauty of averages.

How many people neglect routine maintenance, drive like maniacs, and don’t care about their car at all? They’re hurting that 170,000-mile figure.

If you remember back a few decades, 100,000 miles was the magic number. It seemed like all American cars started running into big problems once their odometer picked up that sixth figure.

The good news is that the modern-day American automobile is much more reliable.

Also, remember that 170,000 isn’t a death sentence for a car. You can keep cruising past that number and enjoy a life that’s even twice as long as the national average.

Expect Breakdowns Along the Way

When you own a car for a long time (like 12.6 years), you need to expect breakdowns along the way. There will be mornings when your car struggles to start in the cold. You’ll hear weird thumps, grinds, and humming noises.

Here’s the key takeaway: don’t ignore these problems. If your car breaks down, weigh your options. Early on, you’ll want to make the necessary repairs and keep going. You’ll want to repair it as soon as possible so things don’t get worse.

Mechanic cleaning the engine after car maintenance

Later down the road, you’ll have to see if the repairs will cost more than the value of the car, and you might wind up getting a different car and selling this one.

Still, a simple breakdown typically isn’t enough to scrap the car immediately. In a lot of cases, there’s something really simple that can be fixed in order to get you back on the road, racking up the miles.

Should You Jump Ship Before Your Car Dies?

Does that mean that you should sell your car when there are 169,999 miles on it? Probably not. If you’re getting fed up with the breakdowns and you aren’t prepared to handle an even bigger problem, maybe that’s your cue.

I would never sell a car simply because it has a lot of miles, though. It isn’t until serious problems start arising. Then, I’ll start having the conversation.

In general, it’s not a great idea to sell your current car just because it might die in the near, or not-so-near future. Who knows, maybe your car is going to be the next record-holding car over Mr. Gordon’s Volvo? A lot of it is luck.

What About Buying a Used Car with Tons of Miles?

On the other hand, maybe you’re considering purchasing a used car that has a ton of miles on the odometer. I’m not the guy who will say this is a bad idea.

Again, it all comes down to how the car was treated, not necessarily the total mileage. I knew a girl who hadn’t changed her oil for 30,000 miles. A prospective buyer might get enticed by that mileage, but they don’t know the whole story.

At the same time, I have a buddy whose Camry refuses to die. He’s up to 300,000 miles and it still runs like it’s brand-new.

Black Toyota Camry parked on the street in Kiev, Urkaine

Don’t let mileage be your decision-maker.

If you want to get math-y about it, use this formula:

Take the odometer’s reading and subtract it into 170,000 (the average lifetime I discussed earlier). Whatever the result is, divide it by however many miles you drive each year. This is how many more years you’ll be able to own this used car.

For example, let’s say I want to get a Tesla for cheap. I find one that has 110,000 miles on the odometer. I drive about 10,000 miles a year. That means that I can buy this car and still drive it for 60,000 miles, or 6 years.

Electric cars tend to last longer and have higher reliability, so this is probably a pretty conservative guess, to be honest.

Even though it has a six-figure value on the odometer, I would probably still go for it after negotiating the price like a pro.

The Make, Model, and Year Matters

Commonly, foreign cars last longer than domestic cars. As I mentioned, the US car manufacturers are stepping up their games, but it’s hard to match the reliability and longevity of a Japanese car.

In addition, newer cars tend to last longer than older ones. It’s probably due to the advancements in manufacturing, technology, and the added safety features you’ll find in new cars.

Honda Pilot 2020
Honda Pilot 2020

Finally, the model of your car really matters. Certain models are more reliable than others, and that’s largely due to the vehicle’s design. Take a look online to determine the potential car’s reliability rating before pulling the trigger and buying it.

These factors combined could easily amount to getting double the average mileage in the right car.

The Verdict

Your car’s mileage is going to depend on a lot of factors. Some of them are outside of your control, like a drunk driver slamming in the back of your vehicle and totaling it. But a lot of things that you do can preserve your car and keep it around for longer.

If you want the CliffsNotes version, here we go:

  • The average car lasts 170,000 miles or 12.6 years
  • If you treat your car right, it will go further
  • You shouldn’t sell your car just because it has high mileage
  • The make, model, and year of the vehicle all matter tremendously
  • You shouldn’t avoid buying a used car just because of the mileage
  • Don’t be afraid to rack up miles on your ride
  • Your car is going to break down eventually
  • Fix your car as soon as possible whenever an issue arises
  • Consider selling your car if the repair bill will cost more than the vehicle’s book value

Simple Tips to Keep Your Car Alive for Longer

I wrote an in-depth guide about keeping your car alive for longer, but I want to give you a few of the key tips in this piece.

1. Park it Inside

Weather, the sun, pollen, and flying debris will all damage your car, shortening its life. A simple scratch can easily turn into a rusted frame if the car is left outside for long enough.

2. Keep it Smooth

You want to drive as smoothly as possible. Like Fonzie behind the wheel.

Apply the brake and gas slowly without slamming either one unless there’s an emergency. Drive like your grandma is in the passenger seat.

3. Do Your Routine Maintenance

Every one of the record-holding drivers cites a common thing that they did: routine maintenance.

An oil change is there to keep your engine from seizing and allow everything to run smoothly. Replacing filters will prevent your car from getting overworked and having parts fail.

Preventative maintenance is a quick, easy, low-cost thing that you do today in order to avoid a disaster tomorrow.

Mechanic doing car maintenance on the car

4. Give Your Tires Some Love

First off, make sure you’re routinely checking the health of your tires. From there, keep up with your tire maintenance. For the life of you, avoid doing donuts and burnouts. Believe me, it might be fun in the moment but it’s not worth it in the end.

5. Get a Mechanic You Trust, and Use Them

Growing up, “mechanic” was a four-letter word. As I’m getting older, I’m realizing the importance of having a trustworthy mechanic in my corner.

They can spot things that I can’t because they’re car experts. I go to my guy whenever I have a problem that I can’t diagnose, or I see an issue that I’m not comfortable dealing with.

6. Fix Your Problem ASAP

Car troubles aren’t something you can kick down the road. If you get into a habit of postponing things when it comes to car issues, you’ll be kicking your car on the side of the road.

The second you hear a knocking noise, you need to put on your trench coat, grab your magnifying glass, and start doing your detective work. After finding the issue, you should fix it immediately.

Conclusion

The life of your car largely depends on you, as the driver. If you want some tools and accessories to lengthen the life of your car, check out my list of top-tier car products. For some extra troubleshooting and repair help, explore the rest of my site. How many miles does your car have, and did you do anything special to get it to that milestone? Leave a comment under this article, I’d love to hear your story.

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Ernest Martynyuk

An automotive enthusiast who's been tinkering with vehicles since I was 15-years old. Repairing automotive electronics has been my main job for over a decade now and have a passion for everything technical regarding cars.

7 thoughts on “How Many Miles Can a Car Last? Predicting Your Car’s Life”

  1. Wow, it was so relieving to know that there is a significant amount of improvement regarding a vehicle’s lifespan; earning an increase of 35%. I’m looking for a new car, because the nature of my job requires me to do so. That being said, I’ll make sure to find the best, new Kias for sale in town.

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    • I hope you find the vehicle you’re searching for. Kia is coming out with some pretty interesting models lately that are giving the bigger car manufacturers a run for their money.

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    • I’m not sure what you mean by clocking the odometer however, I definitely recommend making sure the odometer is working correctly and that the mileage wasn’t tampered with without good reason prior to purchasing a vehicle.

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  2. In my experience, I get more miles and less problems out of a 90’s model nissan than a 2000’s model nissan. It seems that newer cars have more problems with sensors and technology than the older ones. The older ones seem to be cheaper and easier to repair and keep driving.

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    • My daily is a ’93 Infiniti J30. The ’90s were a golden age for Japenese Auto Manufacturers. There are definitely pros and cons to owning an older vehicle like parts getting hard to find but the quality in my opinion is hard to beat.

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  3. The article’s assertion that some people drive recklessly, disregard normal maintenance, and otherwise have no regard for their cars struck me as particularly noteworthy. As someone who overlooks routine maintenance, I can empathise. I haven’t performed proper routine maintenance on my automobile since I bought it last year. For my correct procedure, I’ll make sure to hire a professional.

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