Cars now last longer than ever -- will yours?

Despite booming new-car sales, the average age of cars, SUVs and pickups has risen again, hitting a record 11.5 years, according to IHS Automotive. "The average age has risen over time due to the increasing quality of automobiles," said analyst Mark Seng of IHS. Falling new-car sales during the recession also pushed up that age.

Now, with an average car traveling 10,658 miles annually according to AAA, that 11.5-year-old average car has about 122,500 miles on the odometer. If you like to keep your car a long time, what can you do to make it last to that average mileage and beyond?

First, any recent-model car has built-in longevity. "Every new car today is built to last a quarter of a million miles," said Mike Calkins, manager of technical services at AAA. "But along with that capability, you need to pay more attention to maintenance." That has always been important, but in the past, oil, brake fluid and other engine liquids were pretty much interchangeable among brands. Now, each carmaker has very specific recommendations.

For instance, beginning in 2011, General Motors (GM) recommends that all its cars use a semi-synthetic oil called Dexos. And the manufacturers also have specific recommendations for other engine fluids set forth in each owner's manual. Diesel engines may need a different set of fluids.

Not only will your car perform better with the recommended product, noted Calkins of AAA, but your warranty may be invalid if you don't follow those directions. If you get maintenance done at a dealership, the manufacturer will assume the correct products were used, Calkins noted. But he added that if you go to an independent repair shop, get documentation of the fluids used at each service visit.

If you like to drive a car for a long time rather than trade it in every few years, decide early that you'll stick to all the auto maker's maintenance recommendations. Although modern engines are engineered to last, they also operate at a high percentage of capacity. That makes up-to-date maintenance all the more important.

And between service intervals, check fluid levels and tire inflation once a month, Calkins advised. When your car starts getting up toward that average mileage -- say over 100,000 miles -- you should take some special steps.

  • Check the belts and hoses. These rubber parts can fall apart, but in modern versions, it's hard to see if they're weakening. Get your mechanic to check them when in for a regular service.

  • Double-check if you have changed the timing belt. Most manufacturers recommend doing this somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000 miles. It can be an expensive item, ranging from $300 up to $1,000 or so on luxury brands. But if it breaks, it can cause more serious -- and expensive -- engine troubles.

  • See if you need a wheel alignment to avoid tire wear. If your car won't hold a straight line when you take your hands off the wheel at low speed, it probably needs an alignment.

Don't necessarily be discouraged by a costly repair estimate. "People sometimes think they should just get a new car," Calkins noted. "But I tell them if the repair costs less than half the value of the car, go ahead and do it. Even an expensive repair won't cost as much as five years of payments on a new car."

If you do aspire to be a long-distance driver, what models are likely to take you for that ride? Earlier this year, the iSeeCars.com studied which vehicles had the most used-car listings with mileage over 200,000. The winners were two big pickups, the Ford (F) F-250 Super Duty and the Chevrolet Silverado 2500HD.

Among cars, Honda (HMC) Accord had the most 200,000-mile-plus listings. Other long-lasting cars included the Subaru Legacy, Toyota (TM) Avalon and Camry, Honda Odyssey minivan and Honda Civic, and Nissan (NSANY) Maxima.

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    Jerry Edgerton, author of Car Shopping Made Easy, has been covering the car beat since Detroit companies dominated the U.S. market. The former car columnist for Money magazine and Washington correspondent for Business Week, Edgerton specializes in finding the best deals on wheels and offering advice on making your car last.