Used car shopping: age vs. mileage

This seems like such a perfect Tom and Ray question that I was tempted to try phoning-in on Saturday, but expect to be traveling, and so decided to post here instead.

Hypothetical question: I am shopping for a used car. Given two cars of the same make and model, but different years. The newer car has a not inconsiderable number of additional miles on it, compared to the other car, which is a few years older. Consider all other factors to be equal, i.e. no major redesigns, similar prices, no damage to either, etc. Which do you choose?

I’m thinking the older car would be the better choice, as sitting around is not going to cause more entropy than those extra miles, assuming it wasn’t used for lots of stop and go travel like mail or pizza delivery.

Comments? Thanks!

Maintenance history will also play a crucial role in swaying a buying decision. I would rather buy a well-maintained car with 100k miles on it than a poorly maintained car with 40k miles on it. Even with low mileage, some necessities are also age-related and have a replacement interval based on time as well as mileage. Timing belts are a perfect example of this.

And it also depends on the actual numbers. A 6 year old car with 3,000 miles on it might well be in much worse shape than a 3 year old car with 30,000. That’s because owners who don’t drive much at all tend to cause excess wear due to the car sitting for long periods of time and then being driven only a couple of miles. They tend to go sometimes years between oil changes because they’re using the mileage schedule rather than the time schedule, and they tend to drive short distances which accelerates wear and prematurely rusts parts.

Some drivers of new cars have jobs that involve a lot of road time and miles, outside sales people for instance. I racked up about 30K miles a year in sales. These were largely highway miles and relatively easy on the car. Therefore a 3 year old car with 90K miles could still be in pretty good shape if the driver kept up with oil changes and normal preventative maintenance. The cars I turned in were in fine shape and taken out of service based on miles, not due to some lurking large repair that was needed.

Its hard to say a 3 year old car with 90K miles is a good as a 6 year old car with 25K miles. If you are on a tight budget you might get more car and more features in the newer high mileage car. Some cars are driven too little and might even have problems due to poor maintenance or too few miles. Batteries and exhaust systems on low mileage cars are examples. The exhaust systems in low mileage cars might not get hot enough often enough to burn off water condensation causing premature rust out of components of the exhaust system.

Since maintenance by the previous owner is prehaps more important than miles driven, or age, whichever car you choose be as sure as you can of the maintenance history. The car with the best documented history is one you should consider first.

Thanks for the very quick replies!

The car in question is a 2002 Pontiac Sunfire, partly because 1) I am forcing myself to stay within a budget, 2) it’s had one owner, 3) has less than 50K miles, 4) has a spotless Carfax report, 5) Consumer Reports gives this year a slight reliability nod over many later models, including the Cobalts, 6) my current car is a Sunbird, which has been remarkably reliable.

The problem with some of our thinking (mine included) is that it’s difficult to discern the usage of the previous owner. I haven’t actually seen the car yet, but will be visiting the dealer on Saturday with a buddy who is a former mechanic. Hopefully his eyes will help make the determination. Do the above details help cement your thinking?

what year and how many miles?

CR seems to like (or not hate??) the 2008 Cobalts, although I wasn’t planning to spend that much.

More important that age or miles on the car is the maintenance the car received.  The best indication is opening up the glove box and finding the owner's manual.   If it is greasy dirty dogeared, then likely the maintenance has been done. if it is clean and need as new, I would worry if any maintenance was done.

The type of mileage is also important. Highway mileage would be preferred over a pizza delivery car.

What about hose of us who don’t drive very much, but are always on top of oil changes, odd noises that need fixed, and generally maintaining our cars better than some driving normal, or above normal miles per year?