There are a lot of things to consider when buying a used car, and if you peruse the blog section of TRED.com, you’ll find that we’ve touched on just about all of them. However, one piece of the used car puzzle that we’ve made sparse mention of is mileage, which happens to be one of the single most important considerations that goes into the purchase of a used car. A car’s mileage can affect a lot of things, from value to condition to reliability.
This article will focus on what is likely to be your main concern surrounding a car’s mileage: how many miles is too many? This question, like any good one, does not have a cut and dried numerical answer. Instead, the answer depends on the type of car in question, what you want out of the car, and how much of a gamble you’re comfortable taking. In this article, we’ll address all of those concerns, and come as close as possible to giving a definitive answer to this ubiquitous question.
It depends on the car
As we showed in our reliability olympics article, not all cars are created equal, and some will be more reliable than others. This discrepancy in reliability between different types of vehicles is only emphasized as mileage goes up. For example, I’d be equally confident in the reliability of a brand new BMW 7 Series as I would with a brand new Lexus LS. However, I would be significantly more confident in the reliability of a 200,000 mile Lexus LS than a 200,000 mile BMW 7 Series. That’s a simple product of each brand’s reliability reputation: Lexus is known for building extremely reliable cars that can run well into the 200k mile range. BMW however, while I adore their offerings, does not quite have as stellar of a reputation when it comes to high mileage dependability (to all you BMW fans out there, I know, your dad’s uncle’s barber’s accountant has an E39 5 series that runs great at 350k miles. That’s an anomaly, you and I both know it!).
So, if it depends on the car, which cars fare the best with lots of miles? Well, that aforementioned reliability olympics article is a great start, as it will give you a solid idea of which brands and countries of origin churn out the most dependable vehicles. That said, it’s best to stick to Japanese and/or Korean cars if you want something reliable with high mileage. If you insist on something, say, German however, you still have options. There have been plenty of Porsches, BMWs and Audis that age well, you just need to find the right one. That said, stick to something simple. Avoid turbos, complex adaptive suspensions, all-wheel-drive, and other complications that tend to break down as mileage increases.
Consider what you want out of the car
Another important consideration to make when it comes to deciding how many miles is too many for you is considering what you want out of the car. If you’re just looking for a cheap 4WD beater to get you through the winter, a 150k mile Nissan XTerra might fit the bill perfectly (at least I think it would, I just bought one with 140k!). That’s because, in all likelihood, you only plan on putting 10k-15k miles on the car before you get rid of it in this situation.
Because you’ll only own it for a short time, it’s life expectancy isn’t all that important, as long as it serves you well for that short ownership period. Now, even if you only drive it 10k miles, you’ll still be more likely to run into issues when the odometer reads between 150k and 160k, as opposed to 50k to 60k. However, your risk is lower the shorter you own the vehicle.
Additionally, if you bought it with 150k miles, it’ll probably have had some major service somewhat recently, as cars generally start needing major repairs around that mark. That said, even if you only plan to own the vehicle for a short time, that short time can still be problematic if the car has really covered some serious ground. In general, I wouldn’t be very comfortable owning anything that’s traveled too far over 200k miles. After that point, no matter how well maintained the car has been, and how good of a reliability reputation it has, anything can happen, and you’re taking on quite a risk.
Conversely, let’s assume you need something that you plan on driving for the next 10 years. If that’s the case, you’ll want to look for something with considerably lower mileage: the lower the better, especially if you drive a lot. In general, if you plan to own a car for 10 years, buy a car whose mileage will have you selling it as it approaches the 150k mark. That is to say, if you drive 10k miles per year, and want to own the car for 10 years, buy something with 50k or fewer miles.
In this situation, the car will have 150k miles around the time you want to sell it in 10 years, meaning you got your use out of it before it had so many miles that it became a financial risk to drive frequently. If you want to figure out how many miles a car should have when you buy it, assuming you sell it at or before 150k miles, use this nifty formula I’ve just come up with: desired length of ownership * miles driven/year + the car’s current mileage. If it equals 150k or below, you’re in the clear.
How much of a gamble are you willing to take?
At this point you might be saying to yourself: wait, didn’t you just give us the cut and dried numerical answer that you said you weren’t going to give? I realize that it may seem like I’m suggesting that 150k miles is the limit after which a car is no longer viable for dependable transportation, but I’m not, because it all depends on how much of a gamble you’re willing to take (and your desired use of the car, as discussed). Let’s say you’re a gear head who eats, sleeps and breaths Toyota Land Cruisers. In this instance, a 350k mile Land Cruiser might be right up your alley, because you know exactly what you’re getting into and presumably have the resources and funds to repair the car as necessary. Now, on the other end, you might be the type of person that can’t tell an alternator from an air fryer, in which case, you probably don’t have the mechanical inclination or desire to deal with a high maintenance car, which high mileage cars tend to be. If this sounds like you, 150k miles may be too many. So, as I suggested, there is no cut and dry answer to how many miles is too many. It’s all about assessing how much risk you’re willing to take, how long you need to have the car for, and, of course, what type of car it is. That said, that formula mentioned above can serve as a guideline, so I do recommend you put that to use, adjusting the acceptable mileage outcome according to your preferences.