In 2012, research firm R.L. Polk announced that the average vehicle in the U.S. was a whopping 10.8 years old. That marked an all-time high, but Polk says the record has been broken again, with the figure now standing at 11.4 years.
Think about that for a moment: the average car in America was built during the Enron era. It rolled off the assembly line when Nickelback was vaguely relevant. For better or worse, most of our cars could remember Maid in Manhattan. Yeesh.
To gather its data, Polk looked at registrations for the 247 million vehicles roaming U.S. roads. The age of vehicles has been climbing steadily for years, beginning in 1997, when cars averaged a much-younger 8.4 years.
What's interesting is that, according to AutoNews, the number of cars, trucks, and SUVs in the six- to 11-year-old range has fallen a bit. However, that's more than balanced out by vehicles over 12 years old -- a group that's grown by 20 percent.
WHY NOW, AND WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR YOU?
There are two big reasons for the increasing age of U.S. automobiles:
1. The Great Recession: The financial crash is long over, but it was strong enough and severe enough to make consumers nervous about taking on debt. Between then-skyrocketing unemployment and a stock market in free-fall, many Americans became deeply concerned about their future financial stability. Not surprisingly, consumers often decided to maintain their current rides rather than shelling out for new ones. Those fears still linger.
2. Improving build quality: As J.D. Power's most recent Initial Quality Study shows, the build quality on most cars is fine these days. In fact, it's more than fine, it's great. As with our personal health, our vehicles can run for much longer than they used to, provided we maintain them properly.
As for what the future holds, Polk has a couple of interesting predictions:
- The age of cars on U.S. roads will continue to increase. Because our vehicles are so well-built, Polk expects the number of cars, trucks, and SUVs 12 years of age and older to jump 11.6 percent by 2018. (There's one caveat, though: the number of vehicles between six and 11 years old will shrink, due to the auto sales slump that abated in 2011.)
- Younger cars will begin flooding the market. It's no secret that auto sales are booming nowadays. Because of that, the number of vehicles five years of age and younger should jump 41 percent by the year 2018.
For you, the consumer, this means that you'll have considerably more options when shopping for used cars, since so many vehicles will remain in circulation. As always, though, you'll want to have a mechanic inspect any used vehicle to make sure you're not buying a lemon.
That said, today's cars are increasingly fuel-efficient (thanks in large part to federal regulations), and gas is getting pricier (due to a range of factors, including the cost of drilling, geopolitical concerns, and fear-mongering analysts). Yes, down the line, you'll have the opportunity to purchase a wide range of used vehicles, but folks interested in fuel efficiency will likely -- though not always -- gravitate toward newer models.
How old is your vehicle? How much longer are you planning to keep it? And what's your most important criteria for your next car? Share your thoughts in the comments below.