A car dealer's scientific guide to the most durable used cars

Steven Lang
Longest-lasting used cars
Longest-lasting used cars

Everybody wants to own a keeper. A car that provides so much personal satisfaction that the years and miles can just fly by, while the enduring qualities of that daily driver remain picture perfect.

The hard part for most folks comes down to hype.

To sell more cars, manufacturers continue to promote short-term quality studies that have little or nothing to do with the long-term ownership experience. For example, J.D. Power's Initial Quality Study only covers the first 90 days of ownership, while its long-term survey tracks three-year-old vehicles over a short 12 month span.

In a market where the average car and truck is now over 11 years old, a long-term reliability study requires a much longer view of car ownership. For those of us who are looking to find a good used car, or even feel concerned about how a new car will hold up, we should be able to know the longevity of a vehicle for the entire life cycle instead of just a random early point in time.

This is why Nick Lariviere and myself have developed the Long-Term Quality Index. With over 550,000 data samples from all over the country, we have been able to look specifically at measuring the three key ingredients that tell you how well a given model has performed in today's marketplace; mileage, age and condition.

To make this study fair and impartial, we have also taken two unique steps that represent a first for long-term reliability studies in the auto industry. The first is removing owner bias. Certain people will always recommend a car simply because that's what they bought in the past and if something bad happens, they won’t tell you about it. Others are just oblivious to the thumping of a bad transmission, or the knocking of a bad motor. That is why we only have mechanics and skilled professionals appraise the vehicle’s condition.

Second, we focus exclusively on condition and longevity. Cars that are either 18 years or older, or have 180,000 or more miles, have endured well past the average life-span of the average vehicle.

In our study, we're finding that only a chosen few can routinely achieve these two levels of longevity without a major mechanical defect. It's this level of engineering excellence that we want to highlight in our study.

So what have we found so far? Some of what you might expect, but a lot of surprises.

Rennett Stowe via Twitter
Rennett Stowe via Twitter

The Over-300,000 Club Is Still Pretty Exclusive: Five types of vehicles make up more than 60% of the cars and trucks with at least 300,000 miles. They are:

By our calculations, these models are about 2.5 times more likely to hit 300,000 miles than any other vehicle.

One Nissan model is greater than all of Volkswagen:

We're not talking about a mid-sized Altima, or the Sentra compact which has become the official taxi south of the border. The biggest surprise so far in the study has been the Nissan Maxima. Older models (2002 and earlier) with the 3-liter engine and four-speed automatic offer exceptional long-term reliability.

In the long-term reliability study, 1,038 Maximas out of 4,825 have gone over 180,000 miles (21%), versus only 785 Volkswagens out of 14,518 (5.4%)

Cadillac has VW levels of long-term reliability:

Both brands have abysmal long-term reliability with Cadillac scoring the same 5.4% as Volkswagen, which is less than half of the industry average. Head gasket issues for most years of the Northstar V-8 along with high maintenance costs make older Cadillacs a nadir when it comes to finding a long-term keeper.

How bad does it get for Cadillac? Well, here's a shocker for you.

Cadillac Cars = Older Kias: If you removed the Cadillac Escalade, which is nothing more than a full-sized primped-up version of the less expensive Chevy Tahoe and GMC Yukon, the Cadillac brand becomes a true bottom dweller. Kias that were made before Hyundai's takeover of that brand show similar levels of long-term failure.  

The Honda Accord Crushes Nearly All of Europe: Thanks in great part to the sound reliability of older Volvos, all European brands are barely able to beat the number of Accords that have been traded-in with over 180,000 miles. The Honda Accord's tally of 3,826 trade-ins with over 180,000 out of 12,398 nearly beats Audi, BMW, Jaguar, Land Rover, Mercedes, VW, Volvo, Saab, Porsche, and BMW's sub-brand MINI combined. These European models required a staggering 67,484 vehicles and an army of old Volvos to surpass the mileage tally of one popular Honda model.

British Roots Do Not Bear Reliable Fruit: You have about as much chance of dying from an injury this year as you do buying a Land Rover and a Jaguar with outstanding reliability. The chances of both vehicles combined lasting over 180,000 miles before getting kicked to the curb is an eye-popping 1,700:1.

The Accord and Camry Are Workhorses: Even with well-known transmission issues for certain six-cylinder Honda Accords, the two most popular mid-sized vehicles continue to be kept for far longer periods of time than their competition. The Accord and Camry have remained cars worth keeping with 28% of all Accords traded-in with over 180,000 miles, and 24% of all Toyota Camrys following suit. Both are more than twice the industry average of 11%.

Exceptional Reliability Is Still A Rare Thing: A lot of manufacturers have applied cost-cutting measures and decontenting methods to extremes. These engineering shortcuts often don't reveal themselves until after the vehicle goes beyond 100,000 miles. However, there is still a very wide gulf that separates the market leaders from the market laggards as those miles and years add up.

Feel free to click here to find out how your specific model and powertrain perform.