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Related topics: cars, cheap cars, car repairs, used cars, Liz Weston

I was a little sorry to let go of The Beast. But after 260,000-some miles, we definitely got our money's worth.

The interior door handles were held together with Krazy Glue. The gas gauge hadn't worked in at least 20,000 miles. It had dings and dents. But it still ran, and reliably.

Not everyone wants to drive a car for a quarter-million miles. But most of us can, because today's vehicles are built better than ever and can easily surpass 200,000 miles with regular maintenance. The U.S. Department of Transportation says an average car lasts about 13 years and 145,000 miles before it's scrapped. The average age of all cars on U.S. roads hit 10.2 years in 2009, according to R.L. Polk.

Keeping an older car can save a ton of money. In my book "Deal With Your Debt," I figured that owning cars for 10 years instead of five could save the typical person more than $250,000 over a lifetime.

Hanging on to your car longer means:

  • Fewer car payments. Unless you take out a ridiculously long loan, you can be payment-free after four or five years. If you take care of the car, any repairs you'll need are likely to cost far less than you'd shell out in payments for another vehicle. (Repair costs for our Ford Explorer, including a transmission rebuild and valve replacement, averaged out to about $83 a month.)
  • Lower insurance costs. Premiums tend to drop pretty steadily as your car ages. You can save even more by dropping collision and comprehensive coverage when your total premium exceeds 10% of the car's fair market value. Our annual premium for the Explorer was just $373 -- about $31 a month -- and that's in Los Angeles, known for having pretty high insurance costs.
  • Time to save for the next car. Every month you can put off replacing a vehicle is another month in which you can build up your down payment for the next car. Put off the replacement long enough, and you could even pay cash.

Liz Weston

Liz Weston

So making your vehicle last as long as possible is clearly a smart move. That's particularly true in today's dismal economy. It's not a great time to be adding a big expense like a car payment, as much as automakers would love for you to do so.

You snooze, you lose

How do you get the most out of your car? Here's what we did, based on advice from car experts:

Follow the maintenance schedule. Duh, right? Except many people don't, and this is where a few hundred bucks' worth of prevention each year can stave off thousands in repairs.

Further, not following the manufacturer's maintenance schedule can void your warranty. If you fail to have the minimum required service done and a warranty part fails, the dealer and manufacturer can deny your claim.

Your owner's manual details what you should do when, but you can get oil change reminders and notices of safety recalls with MSN Autos' My Car feature. has a maintenance feature that tells you what needs to be done at various mileage milestones, including how much the parts and labor should cost.

You'd be smart to figure out how many miles you drive a month on average, and then make note on your calendar when you're scheduled to hit your next recommended servicing. Let's say you're at 100,000 miles now and your next recommended maintenance is at 105,000 miles. If you drive 15,000 miles a year, or 1,250 a month, you should note on your calendar to bring your car in for servicing in four months.

These maintenance schedules work for vehicles getting normal use, but many people put extra stress on their rides. Any of the following can qualify as "severe" use, which may require shortening the normal maintenance cycle to every 3,000 miles (instead of every 5,000 to 7,500):

  • Towing.
  • Off-road driving.
  • Driving through dust storms or in dusty conditions.
  • Frequent, short (less than 5 miles) trips or frequent stops and starts.
  • Cold climate operation.

You should budget $500 to $1,000 a year or more for maintenance, depending on the age and type of car;'s True Cost to Own calculator can give you an estimate of typical annual maintenance costs for most newer cars.

Also, keep a file of everything you've done to and for your car. Not only does that help you track when maintenance is due, but having the records can also help boost the resale value.

Be alert for recalls. MSN Auto's My Car and's maintenance wizard allow you to print out recall notices. You typically can take these notices to your local dealership and get the defects fixed for free.