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Cars In America Are Still Over 11 Years Old -- And Getting Older

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Squatter camp, Sacramento, CA (photo by Dorothea Lange for the U.S. Department of Agriculture)

Squatter camp, Sacramento, CA (photo by Dorothea Lange for the U.S. Department of Agriculture)

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During the Great Recession, car sales tanked, bottoming out in 2009. That year, Americans bought just 10.4 million vehicles -- a number that U.S. auto dealers had been surpassing for decades.

But the economy wasn't the only thing that kept consumers from buying cars. True, many people lost jobs during the recession, and those that still had jobs were unsure of what the future held, which certainly impacted the public's willingness to shell out for new rides. However, another very important thing kept shoppers at bay: the fact that their old cars were still going strong.

AGING GRACEFULLY

When research firm Polk first began tracking the age of our cars and trucks in 1997, the company found that the average vehicle in America was 8.4 years old. By 2012, that number had surged to 11.4 years.

The increase didn't happen overnight. It was gradual, resulting from slow and steady improvements to build quality initiated by automakers around the globe (and, to a degree, kept in check by federal regulations). The Great Recession simply accelerated a process that was already at work.

And it's not just Polk saying that U.S. vehicles are getting longer in the tooth. According to the Wall Street Journal, IHS Automotive has come to similar conclusions. IHS says that the average vehicle in the U.S. is 11.3 years old -- statistically speaking, right on par with Polk.

The two firms also agree that our vehicles will keep aging gracefully for the forseeable future. Though the rate of aging will slow a bit in the coming years, IHS believes that by 2018, the average U.S. vehicle will be 11.5 years old.

OUR TAKE

Now that the U.S. economy is rolling again -- albeit in occasional fits and starts -- auto shoppers are returning to showrooms. While you'd expect that to lower the average age of cars in America, that trend is countered by the fact that demand for used cars is sky high. So, even though consumers may be buying lots of new vehicles, an equal number of shoppers are ready to grab those traded-in, second-hand rides, keeping the average vehicle age high.

We don't see build quality declining anytime soon, so we wouldn't expect to see vehicle age take any big hits in the coming years. In fact, if electric cars pick up speed, the average age of vehicles could see a fairly dramatic surge. 

Why? Because as every driver knows, one of the biggest trouble spots in any car is its engine. That's because it's full of moving parts, and it's central to a vehicle's functionality. You can drive a car without a/c or power steering, but without an engine, you're not going anywhere. Much like the human heart, a car's engine endures lots of wear-and-tear, which, in turn, leads to problems.

Fully electric cars, however, nix the engine, substituting a battery, which has no moving parts and thus, fewer opportunities to malfunction. True, electric car batteries power motors, which turn the wheels, and those motors have moving parts, but they're substantially less complex than gasoline engines.

Of course, even electric cars can break. No matter how they're powered, vehicles will always suffer from problems, and there will always be room for improvement. But whether the car you drive today runs on gas, diesel, electricity, or some combination thereof, chances are good that it'll last for many, many more miles before giving up the ghost. 

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