When an estimated 92 million Americans hit the nation’s roads over this Labor Day weekend, more of them will be driving used cars than ever before. I’ll be among them — behind the wheel of my Toyota Prius, freshly turned 14 years old in September. That’s the longest I have ever owned a car. I used to lease a fancy crossover vehicle, with a new car every 36 months; now, my little red hybrid’s odometer has passed the 163,000-mile mark.
I didn’t know I’d end up being fashionable by hanging on to the car so long: The average age of vehicles owned by Americans in 2022 is a record 12.2 years, according to an S&P Global Mobility report. That includes sedans, trucks and SUVs; for sedans, it’s 13.1 years. The number has risen for five consecutive years. Twenty years ago, the average age of cars on U.S. roads was about 9.5 years.
The trend looks certain to continue: New cars are alarmingly expensive. The price of gas, which we’re supposed to be happy is just $3.85 per gallon on average nationwide, is likely heading back to $5 per gallon by the end of the year, according to Goldman Sachs.
Looks like my Prius and I are heading for 200,000 miles. It has some scratches and chipped paint, but the body and especially the interior are otherwise in great shape. I’ve driven that car north, south, east and west, Boston to San Diego, Montreal to New Orleans, where I live now.
My mechanic said that, with regular maintenance, the car could easily last 25 years (assuming it doesn’t get swallowed by one of the Big Easy’s monster potholes that feature on Instagram).
Why did I go from leasing gas-burning vehicles to a long-term relationship with a hybrid? I went to see “An Inconvenient Truth,” the 2006 documentary made by former vice president Al Gore. With alarm bells ringing over climate change, I investigated car options and made the leap to a gas-electric hybrid two years later.
One reason people are increasingly likely to keep driving cars instead of trading them in is that vehicle quality has vastly improved over the past two decades. But the high price and limited availability of new cars are other major factors.
Thanks to the relentless popularity of SUVs and pickups, the average vehicle now costs a breathtaking $48,182 — the most ever. Yet even if you want to shell out that much, good luck finding the object of your automotive dreams. Since the pandemic began, auto production worldwide has been stymied by a lack of computer chips and by bottlenecks in supplies of other parts.
Would-be customers are frustrated — as are dealers who normally would be selling down their supplies of 2022 model vehicles and getting ready for shiny sheet metal marking the October start of the 2023 model year.
I witnessed the problem firsthand recently while sitting in the waiting area of a Toyota dealership, killing time while some work was done on my car. Nearby, an older customer seemed ready to buy a new vehicle but then learned that the model she wanted wasn’t available. The salesman worked hard to talk her into a vehicle she clearly didn’t want — but the woman soon left.
With new vehicles so scarce, used car prices have soared, with first-quarter 2022 prices rising 22 percent over the same period in 2021 and 48 percent over 2020. Pre-owned vehicles have always been in demand, even though they get little attention compared with late model ones. The ratio of used car sales to new vehicles last year was about 3 to 1 — 43 million used vehicles were sold last year, versus about 15 million new ones.
Consumer Reports said this spring that “dealers are trying to snap up as many used cars as they can to satisfy customer demand, and that means you can get top dollar if you’re looking to sell or trade in.”
My Prius isn’t for sale. I haven’t had car payments for nearly a decade. The insurance and gas are around $150 a month. In the past five years, I’ve spent less than $3,000 on maintenance and repairs, including new tires.
With only 112 horsepower, the car doesn’t offer the sense of dominating the roads that the luxury crossovers did back in my leasing days. I do sometimes get rattled by bigger vehicles. Then again, sometimes the SUVs and pickups are waylaid by those giant New Orleans potholes while my Prius darts around them — the car might be old, but it’s still nimble.