U.S. Drivers Keep Their Cars Nearly 6 Years -- A Record High

February 22, 2012
Older driver

Older driver

If you've bought a new car since 2005, chances are good that it's still sitting in your garage. According to Polk research firm, U.S. consumers are holding onto their vehicles -- both new and used -- for longer than ever before, and not just for financial reasons.

Polk has been tracking the average length of vehicle ownership since January 2003. The firm uses data from new vehicle registrations for its figures on new and used car drivers.

As of September 2011 -- the data just released -- new-car owners were holding onto their vehicles for an average of 71.4 months, just shy of six years. That's the highest average on record.

But it's not just new-car owners who are keeping their rides: drivers of used cars are holding onto them longer, too. In fact, the average used-car owner keeps her vehicle 49.9 months, or slightly more than four years. That's an all-time high, too.

Why so hard to say goodbye?

Polk suggests four reasons to explain drivers' long-term commitments to their vehicles:

1. Conservative shoppers: Though the U.S. economy seems to have turned a corner, unemployment rates remain on the high side. Consumers are wary of shelling out for a new vehicle while the job market is still shaky.

2. New financing options: Once upon a time, shoppers were presented with a limited range of loans when purchasing a new ride. Now, it's fairly common to see loans of 66 and 72 months. While consumers can, of course, trade-in their vehicles before loans are paid off, giving up a low monthly loan payment and having to refinance another isn't always appealing.

3. Longer warranties: Many of the warranties available from manufacturers allow consumers to keep their cars considerably longer than they have in the past, without worrying that they'll be stuck with expensive maintenance bills. (We'd add that the increased availability of aftermarket warranties adds to consumers' sense of security in their vehicles, even though aftermarket warranties aren't always what they're cracked up to be. Read the fine print.)

4. Better cars: This may be the biggest and most important reason on the list. Today's cars are simply built better and more durably than they were in the past. That explains why the average length of car ownership has been steadily increasing since 2003 -- long before the Great Recession. When Polk began tracking data in Q1 of that year, new-car owners held onto their vehicles for 49.8 months, and used-car owners for 32.2 months. Both those figures have ratcheted up gradually over the intervening years.

Still, Polk predicts that U.S. new-car sales will continue to gain speed, reaching pre-recession levels in about three years. In the meantime, used-car owners will get more for their rides (due to a shortage of used cars in the market), and parts stores will do booming business (thanks to consumers' inclination to repair rather than replace). 

For more info, you can download a PDF of Polk's report here

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