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Americans Would Love to Swap Cars Like Cellphones

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If wishes were horses, we’d all be equestrians. A new study shows that Americans would be happy trading in their cars as frequently as their mobile phones, and that’s pretty often.

Who wouldn't want a BMW M5? But reality may be a 2003 Honda Civic. (BMW photo)According to Swapalease.com, the typical life of an American cellphone is just 21.7 months. By then, it’s hopelessly outdated, right? And there’s a big parallel with cars, which struggle to incorporate the latest technology into platforms that take years to develop.

The Swapalease.com survey finds 59.5 percent of men and 60.7 percent of women wanting to trade in cars as often as phones. More than 10 percent of either sex would actually want to do it more frequently. What I find telling is that 31.4 percent of men and a whopping 39.5 percent of women say their primary reason is to have “a vehicle with the latest features.” What they’re talking about, largely, is infotainment, which is moving at lightning speed.

Chances are, you’re swapping out a car that doesn’t even have an audio output, let alone a USB connection. Still rockin’ cassettes? The cars coming onto the lots now may not even have CD players. There’s lots of other cool tech, too, including self-driving and parking features, lane departure warnings, heated steering wheels and traction control. You can’t get any of that stuff in a 2003 Honda Civic.

Scott Hall, an executive vice president of Swapalease, concurs with my analysis:

Our cars are becoming feature-rich vehicle devices, with technology that evolves much faster than in years past. As such, people want to always stay current with this latest technology, similar to what’s happening in the mobile phones industry.

Ah, but there’s a big gap between our wish lists and our actual purchases. That 11-year-old Civic may not be “feature-rich,” but it’s durable, and trading in cars every two years is really expensive in this economy—the darned thing depreciates as soon as it’s out of the showroom door.

Don't laugh, it's an '85 Nova, it's paid for, and it runs. Chicago's parking derby has taken a toll. (Flickr/Mob Mob)In actual fact, we’re keeping cars longer than ever, with the average age in 2013 an impressive 11.4 years (just like that Civic). Since 2007, the average age has gone up two years, says Polk research. The number of cars going to a scrapyard in any given year is down 50 percent. Hall thinks this trend is going to reverse itself as we come out of the recession, and people have money again to make their fantasies come true.

Since I always consider the green angle, I’d have to say that keeping cars longer is basically good for the planet, since according to the Environmental Defense Fund, 11 percent of a car’s lifecycle emissions is in its manufacture. That percentage is going down as automakers clean up their plants, with a special emphasis on the paint process.

The downside, as Janet Wright of SellMart points out, is that older cars can become gross polluters. You’ve seen the Bondo specials trailing a cloud of blue smoke—they’re doing a lot of damage. Owners of beaters, Wright said, “really need to consider whether it is worth shelling out on repairs time and time again or whether they should just bite the bullet, sell their old car, and invest in something newer.”

It’s funny that Swapalease asked people if they’d want a new car “assuming cost was not an issue.” When is cost not an issue when we’re talking about cars?

Incidentally, most cited as objects of desire in the poll were (in this order) BMW, Mercedes, Audi, Cadillac, Lexus and Acura.
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