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How to keep your old car running longer

Should you buy a new car? A used car? What if the best economic choice is the car already in your garage?

Despite improving new cars sales, many Americans are avoiding car payments and holding onto their old cars longer. The average age of vehicles on the road in America has hit a record 10.8 years, according to research firm R.L. Polk. And a survey by the automotive web site AutoMD showed that 64% of respondents had a car or truck with over 100,000 miles on the odometer.

If you have a car that old -- or just want to keep your newer-model car running a long time -- car care experts have good news: A car built in the last decade has a good chance of running well up to 150,000 miles. Not long ago, owners could expect that cars hitting 100,000 miles would start to have lots of expensive problems.

But there is a catch. "Cars can run a long time with proper care, and that is an important caveat," says Mike Calkins, manager of approved auto repair for the national AAA. Here are the recommendations that Calkins and other car care experts give if you want to keep your old -- or not so old -- car running a long time:

--Follow the prescribed maintenance schedule. Stick to the timetable set out in the owners' manual for oil changes and other maintenance. Most manufacturers call for changing oil every 5,000 to 7,500 mile, longer intervals than in the past. You only need to change oil more often if you drive a lot in dusty conditions or extreme heat or cold or if you tow a trailer or boat frequently. Have your brakes checked, along with the coolant and the fluid level in the power steering.

--Find a good mechanic. Especially if you have an older car, you can likely save money by going to an independent mechanic instead of a dealership. Check here to see if there is a AAA-certified repair shop in your area. The stringent certification program run by Calkins includes inspections of the shop and equipment, review of its technicians, background financial checks and customer satisfaction surveys.

If you cannot find a AAA shop nearby, look for one that has individual mechanics certified in their specialties by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence, usually known as ASE.

--Get in some highway driving. Short trips of stop-and-go driving are hard on a car. If you habitually make only a short commute or brief trips for errands, take the car out and drive at highway speeds every few weeks. And pay attention to how you drive. Avoiding sharp acceleration and sudden braking not only improves your gas mileage, it helps extend the life of your car.

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Special advice for owners of older cars

If a car in your garage has over 100,000 miles already, AAA's Mike Calkins has some additional advice for you:

--Get all the belts and hoses checked. These rubber parts can be damaged by heat under the hood and, if they fail, can lead to more serious problems.

--Make sure you have a wheel alignment. It will keep your steering properly responsive and cut down on tire wear, saving you money in the long run.

--Check to see if you had the timing belt changed when recommended -- usually between 60,000 and 90,000 miles. If not, get it changed now, even though it can cost $300 or more; otherwise more serious engine repairs could await you.

Most of all, keep up the maintenance routine even as the car ages, and you -- not mechanical failure -- can determine how long you drive that car.

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