Image: Convertible © Corbis

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. Edmunds.com 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; Edmunds.com'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 Edmunds.com'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.

Take it easy on the engine, Part I. I advocate buying used cars to save money, but one nice thing about owning a car from the start is that you get to be in charge of the break-in period, the first 1,000 miles or so a car runs. Keeping your speed below 55 mph and avoiding idling for long periods in these critical first miles can help prolong the engine's life. Even afterward, it helps to avoid jackrabbit starts and racing the engine while it's idling. You can reduce wear and tear even more by bunching your errands into fewer trips, because most of the damage done to an engine happens in its first few minutes of operation.

Take it easy on the engine, Part II. Avoid towing or carrying heavy loads. Our Explorer had a tow package, but we used it only a handful of times to pull a trailer with light loads. If something bigger needed moving, we rented a truck. If you do tow heavy stuff, you can try to offset the strain by changing the oil and transmission fluid more often (your owner's manual will offer suggestions), but we'd rather put that kind of stress on someone else's engine.

Be diligent about oil changes. I've been known to go a couple of years without a physical, and I occasionally forget to floss, but I'm pretty conscientious about getting the oil changed. The Explorer manual recommended oil changes every 7,500 miles or six months under normal conditions, or 3,000 miles or three months under "unique driving conditions," such as towing, frequent short trips in freezing weather, stop-and-go driving in hot weather or driving through dust storms.

I don't drive very much -- typically less than 10,000 miles a year. So I wound up changing the oil every spring and fall, rather than waiting for the odometer to rack up enough miles. I also use synthetic oil, which is probably overkill, but it gives me peace of mind.

With every oil change, check the fluids, belts, tire tread and hoses. If you're a do-it-yourselfer, these chores add just a few minutes to the job. If you're paying somebody else, these inspections may be included, or you can pay a few bucks extra to have them done (our mechanic charges $12 for a thorough check).

I have to say I'm not much of a fan of the chain oil-change places; the only time my Explorer ever stranded me was the year I tried to save money by using one of these outfits, and the service technician failed to notice a belt that was about to break. Now I stick with a mechanic I know and trust (more on that later).

Have a fill-up routine. Pop the hood and check your oil. While you're there, wipe the battery clean with a damp towel and check for corrosion, cracks or bulges. Once you're done, check your tire pressure. (Use a digital gauge, which is more accurate; you can find them for less than $20. I found one that talks, which is completely unnecessary but kind of cool.) You don't have to do this every single fill-up, but shoot for every other time.

Find a good mechanic or become one. Our current mechanic won our hearts by scoffing when we suggested fixing the gas gauge. It was an expensive repair, he explained, and unnecessary if we just reset the trip odometer at every fill-up. When the trip odometer neared 200 miles, we headed for a gas station. We trust him to let us know when a repair is necessary or smart, and his fees are reasonable (the My Car feature has a calculator to help you check these things).

Don't keep up with the Joneses

Do a walk-around. While studying for my pilot's license, I was taught to do a "walk-around" -- a careful inspection of the plane's exterior to look for potential problems -- before climbing into the cockpit. Doing the same with the Explorer helped me spot flat tires, fluid leaks and the SpongeBob SquarePants stickers my daughter liked to sneak onto every possible surface. A simple walk-around also can help you avoid running over anything that's been left behind your car, from someone's bike to (heaven forbid) someone's kid.

Drive defensively. Your car will never be the same after it's been in a major accident, and its useful life can be shortened significantly (assuming it's not already totaled). So slow down, expect other drivers to be idiots, and don't be one yourself. That means hanging up when you drive.

Keep it clean and waxed. I was less meticulous about this than my husband was when the Explorer was his primary car, but regularly removing the grime helps protect the exterior, as does a regular paste wax (as soon as water stops beading on the paint, it's time to wax again). If you live in a cold-weather climate, it's important to regularly sluice off the road salt, sand and slush to prevent rust and other damage.

Refuse to care what other people think. I'm convinced that many, if not most, cars are traded in before their time simply because people become embarrassed about driving them. I chose to turn that thinking on its head by taking perverse pride in showing up with the oldest car at any restaurant, party or local event I attended. My motto was: "Laugh all you want. It's paid for. Is yours?"

Know when to fold. Consumer Reports says you should ditch a car when the cost of a repair exceeds its fair market value. For me, the bright line for retiring a car is when I can no longer trust it to get me from Point A to Point B. If one repair follows another, maybe it is better to bail, but it takes a lot of repairs to outweigh the cost of car payments (or the interest we'd lose by using savings to pay cash for the next car).

I might still be driving The Beast to this day if it hadn't been for the recession and phenomenal car deals that suddenly became available. After 16 years, we'd already owned the car six years longer than we'd planned, and we knew we'd have to replace it soon. So we pulled the trigger.

The Beast was passed along to some friends who wanted a bigger vehicle for in-town driving. We found a year-old Volvo C30 for my husband, and I once again inherited the car he'd been driving -- a nicely maintained (of course!) Volvo wagon. I have to say, it's nice having a working gas gauge again.

Liz Weston is the Web's most-read personal-finance writer. She is the author of several books, most recently "The 10 Commandments of Money: Survive and Thrive in the New Economy" (find it on Bing). Weston's award-winning columns appear every Monday and Thursday, exclusively on MSN Money. Join the conversation and send in your financial questions on Liz Weston's Facebook fan page.