The Cars We Keep the Longest? They're All Japanese

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Dec 29, 2016

Here’s a blow to American pride, as we say goodbye to what most of us agree really wasn’t a great year. The 10 new cars their original owners keep the longest, for at least 10 years—they’re all Japanese. “It isn’t surprising,” said Phong Ly, CEO of iSeeCars.com, which did the survey. He told me:

What our study says about American car buyers is that they value dependability and generally hold onto those cars for a long time. The top brands that show up on the list are the same brands that have consistently performed well on Consumer Reports' most reliable brands rankings. If a vehicle is reliable and has fewer problems, there's less of a motivation for the owner to replace their car.  What it says about the manufacturers of these top brands like Toyota is that they have a better sense of what consumers value and how to make it happen.

The Highlander and the Highlander Hybrid are the vehicles Americans keep longest. (Toyota photo)

In fact, the top four are all from Toyota, as is #7 (RAV4) and #9 (the Lexus RX hybrid). Honda’s Pilot, CR-V and Odyssey are at #5, #6 and #10 respectively, and Subaru’s Forester is at #8. Some 22.2 percent of Toyota original owners keep their cars 10 years or more, which is 1.7 times the average. 

Here’s the top four:

  • Toyota Highlander Hybrid (32.1 percent of owners keep it more than 10 years, 2.5 times the average).
  • Toyota Prius (32 percent, also 2.5X).
  • Toyota Highlander (29 percent, 2.2X).
  • Toyota Sienna (28.7 percent, 2.2X).

"Toyota vehicles are known for quality, dependabiliy and long-term reliability," Toyota's Jana Hartline told me. "We're proud to make a vehicle that will be part of the family for years to come." Notice anything else about the list, aside from the fact that the Highlander grabs two of the four top spots? In a true sign of the times, nine out of 10 are SUVs or minivans, with only the redoubtable Prius as an exception.

The 2017 Prius Prime (54 mpg combined) should uphold the brand's reputation for reliability. And that fuel economy should come in handy if gas prices go up. (Toyota photo)

I helped my environmental magazine publisher friend Doug buy a Toyota Prius back in 2003, the first year of the second generation. He’s still driving it, at 203,000 miles. The battery pack replacement was a $3,500 expense, but he didn’t hesitate getting the car fixed rather than trading it in.

“The battery replacement was far less than what people had predicted when I got the car—they said $10,000—and it happened much later,” Doug said. “I actually got the car in mid-2003, so it went 12 to 13 years before the battery started failing. Naysayers had been saying it would die in five years. I’ve had virtually no other issues with the car—replaced a few headlights and taillights and not much else—so I didn’t see the point of adding to the automobile graveyard out there. The car still runs like a charm. It really is a great car.”

Who am I to argue? We plan to buy a Prius as our next vehicle, when our daughter takes the family Fit off to college. That car is at 125,000 miles and still going strong, too, after nine years.

Minivans, like this 2017 Sienna, seem to be making a comeback. And they're reliable as all heck. (Toyota photo)

Long gone are the days when car models (like 1960s Chevys) changed dramatically every year, and the annual trade-in was a ritual. In fact, people keep their cars of all types, new and used, an average of 11.5 years. But the ones that stick around the longest are from Japan.

“These kinds of cars tend to be used as family cars, so they might be expected to be kept for many years if they’re bought just as their owners start their new families,” said Ly, who also notes the presence of two hybrids on the list. “For hybrids, the savings from fuel costs accrue only after several years of ownership, so one reason owners may be keeping these vehicles is to offset the higher cost of a hybrid,” he said.

And here’s another reason to hold on to your hybrid, if you have one—gas prices are going up again. Yep, OPEC production cuts are on the horizon, and the bottom line for a gallon (currently $2.286 nationally) is up 24 cents from this time last year. Why do I remember this crazy comedy skit in which this idiot seesaws between a Prius and a Hummer every time the price at the pumps fluctuate? Predictably, hybrid sales have been sinking as we filled up on historically cheap gas, but expect to see a rebound again.

The iSeeCars.com people sliced and diced the list a few different ways. It’s revealing to note that only 11 percent of owners keep the most popular vehicle in America, the Ford F-150 pickup, for more than 10 years. That’s below average. The Chevy Silverado is a bit better, at 13.9 percent.

Relatively dismal: The Jeep Grand Cherokee (8.7 percent) and the Ford Mustang (7.9 percent). It’s kind of odd that the ultra-reliable Honda Civic, at 17.1 percent, doesn’t have higher retention numbers. The paradox here is that the cars and trucks Americans really like, they don’t keep. Of course, they may simply be buying new examples of the same brand, but the survey doesn’t measure that. And pickups, as work trucks, lead hard lives. That’s a factor, too.

I tend to keep cars forever, but not because they’re dependable Japanese iron. My Dodge Dart was the can’t-kill-‘em Camry of its day. Mention the Slant Six engine to any American of a certain age and a faraway look comes into their eyes. My friend drove one something like 100,000 miles without changing the oil. Would you sell a car like that?


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