How do you determine if the used car you bought is a success or a bust? Is it reliability — whether the car has ever left you stranded? Do you add up all the repairs and compare them to the purchase price of the car? Or do you base it on how much the car costs you to operate on a monthly basis?
There is no clear-cut answer. Each car owner has his own tolerance level for repairs and maintenance. Some people own the same car for years, handling small fixes and big repairs, while others will sell a vehicle at the first sign of a big-ticket problem.
Is It Going To Die?
Our 1996 Lexus ES 300, also known as the "Debt-Free Car," has been with us for about six months. In that time, we've driven it more than 13,000 miles. It has gone across the country, made three trips to Las Vegas, withstood the heat of Death Valley in the middle of the summer, traveled to the mountains for an editor's hiking trip and, of course, it's taken us to work, home and around town. It left us stranded just once. We had set out to drive the car for 15,000 miles, but at this rate we can easily reach 20,000 miles, which is what we expect our much newer long-term cars to do.
This is a sign of a great experience to us, but other people see it differently. Omnius, a commenter in Chapter 5 of the Debt-Free Car Project, had this to say about our Lexus:
"I have been following this series with interest. At first, it seemed like a smart play, and I was actually envious that you seemed to have found the ideal car — a cheap Lexus — and what with all your vetting in advance surely out of all the lemons it was 'the one' which would be in mint condition despite its mileage. Skip ahead to article 5 in the series, and not only are you spending hundreds of dollars on repairs routinely, but the car is in a perpetual state of 'Is it going to die right here?'-ness. This is despite the absurd level of automobile savvy you (and apparently everyone in your life) exhibit. Your dad has a car code reader handy? You've been fixing things yourself? Your friend knew how to diagnose that heater thing?"
Omnius is correct in saying that we have a number of resources available to us at Edmunds, but we purposely have chosen repair methods that are easy enough for the average person to do. Despite some of the automobile savvy that surrounds us, the bulk of our research involved doing little more than running searches on Google and calling places to compare prices.
It's true that the Lexus budget got off to a pricey start. The car didn't win true debt-free status until recently. But time and a solid foundation of preventive maintenance have balanced the budget and now the car is in the black. Keeping track of the expenses helped us see a telling pattern of automotive wellness.