With some 80 percent of 10-year-old vehicles still on the road, carmakers need to offer consumers a compelling reason to head back to the show room.
Last fall, I celebrated an automotive milestone. For the first time in my life, I have a car that has run for more than 100,000 miles. My 2001 Ford Escape, which I purchased new, has now racked up more than 110,000 miles. What’s more, it still runs and looks like new. There’s no rust. The paint isn’t faded. And, except for the parts that you’d expect to wear out, it hasn’t required excessive repairs. I’m even more pleased considering I bought the car in its first model year. Kudos to Ford!
I wish I could be more pleased, but the truth is, crossing the 100,000 mark isn’t that big a deal anymore. Anyone who bemoans the quality of American-made vehicles simply hasn’t been paying attention. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), passenger cars and light trucks are racking up more miles than ever. Passenger cars routinely surpass 150,000 miles, while pickups, SUVs and vans often go 180,000 miles. The NHTSA also notes that 79 percent of 10-year-old vehicles are still on the road.
By my conservative estimate, some 75 million passenger cars were sold in the United States from January 1999 to December 2008, including both domestic production and imports, fleet sales and leases. That’s about one car for every four people in this country, regardless of age, and that doesn’t include pickups, SUVs or vans. If 80 percent of those vehicles are still on the road, racking up miles, looking like new, it’s hard to imagine any scenario that would send consumers to dealerships in droves and thereby rescue the faltering automotive industry. It’s an especially tall order in this economy, when consumers are shunning any major expenditure.
The challenge for carmakers, therefore, is to give consumers a compelling reason to replace their old, but otherwise quite serviceable vehicles. Affordable, reliable, high-quality hybrids and electric vehicles would be a step in that direction.