Cars That Won't Die Are Trucks and SUVS?

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Feb 12, 2016

Here's a vehicle that seems to last forever: The Ford F-250 Super Duty. According to a iSeeCars.com survey, six percent of them have more than 200,000 miles on the clock, the most of anything on the road.

Retired school teacher Irv Gordon and his 3.1-million-mile 1966 Volvo 1800S. His secret: Keeping the little car on the road, and not turning it into a garage queen. (Photo courtesy of Irv Gordon)As a big truck, it’s going to eat a lot of gas, which will likely offset any longevity bonus, but still. The trucks and SUVs are the vehicles racking up the miles. After the F-250, the high-milers are, in descending order:
  • Chevrolet Silverado (5.7 percent over 200,000 miles)
  • Toyota 4Runner (5.2 percent)
  • Ford Expedition (5percent)
  • Chevrolet Suburban (4.8 percent)
  • Toyota Sequoia (4.8 percent)
  • GMC Sierra 2500HD (4.6 percent)
  • Chevrolet Tahoe (3.4 percent)
  • GMC Yukon XL (3.2 percent)
  • GMC Yukon (2.7 percent)
  • Toyota Avalon (2.7 percent)
  • Toyota Tacoma (2.5 percent).
Only the Avalon, a premium mid-sized sedan, is not a heavyweight. I have a theory about this: The trucks and SUVs mostly have big-displacement V-8 engines, which are typically very understressed on the highway. Their engines are lazing along at 2,500 rpm at 60 mph. 

Vehicles like this 2016 Ford F-250 Super Duty are working trucks, which means that the owners don't scrimp on maintenance. (Ford photo)Here’s iSeeCars.com’s take: “Big trucks top the list because they are primarily used as work vehicles and thus driven much more than the average car. As a result, the owners pay much closer attention to keeping the vehicles in good operating condition.”

Maine's Joe LoCicero puts a million miles on a Honda Accord. (Honda photo)I went for expert opinion to Irv Gordon, owner of the world’s most traveled car, a 1966 Volvo 1800S with 3.18 million miles on it. Yes, you read that right. Gordon, who’s still driving his Volvo (but not in winter these days), says, “These trucks are used for commercial purposes—they’re not family cars. I would think that the people who own working trucks are more conscious of the service that’s required on them. It’s more casual owners who put off changing the oil, with bad results.”

The Volvo has a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine, which doesn’t fit my theory, but Gordon points out that its British-built overdrive unit means it’s also kind of understressed on the highway. The original engine is still under the hood, albeit rebuilt twice—at 680,000 miles and 2.1 million.

Phong Ly, CEO of iSeeCars.com, doesn’t think my theory holds water. “You pose an interesting question, but our data does not support this,” he said. “While it is true that many of the vehicles on our top 10 longest-lasting list have V-8 engines, there are models with V-8s that don’t have nearly as many 200,000+ mile cars available.”

Ly adds, “We are not equating a list of longest-lasting vehicles to cars that are going to save you money. We’d like to think that consumers are rational enough to choose a vehicle that meets their needs and will not buy one of these vehicles in the top 10 overall list unless they need a truck or larger SUV.”

This is where I differ with Ly. I don’t think consumers are all that rational when it comes to buying cars—it’s a heart decision, not a head one. And they do indeed buy SUVs when they don’t need them.

Dan Edelman's '96 Dodge Ram 2500 4X4. He keeps up the maintenance. (Dan Edelman photo)Dan Edelman of New York owns a 1996 Dodge Ram 2500 4X4. It’s nothing fancy, a working truck with a bit of rust. It’s also got more than a million miles on it. One reason: The Cummins diesel under the hood. Many of the world’s highest-mileage vehicles are diesels, including some six-figure Mercedes sedans. I’ll bet a lot of the vehicles that reached 200k miles on Iseecars.com’s list are diesels, since that’s a popular option on work trucks.

“It’s not a luxury car, it’s just a truck,” says Edelman. He says the engine is a simple but very reliable design, kind of crude but effective. “It’s an old dog.”

The Dodge is a go-to vehicle, out there in snow and rain. And that leads to a perhaps counter-intuitive truism: Cars like to be driven. “Low-mileage” in a used car ad is not necessarily a good thing, if the garage queen has been sitting without being started or moved. Seals dry out, cylinders drain of oil, tires develop flat spots. In short, even pristine “restored” automobiles will deteriorate rapidly if kept as decorations rather than working “daily drivers.”

A mechanic friend of mine works on a lot of beautiful trophy cars that sit in heated garages and for the most part, he said, they’re a mess. Gordon agrees: “It’s when you let cars sit around that things go bad,” he said. “One reason my Volvo has lasted as long as it has is that it’s constantly in use.”

The lesson here isn’t to buy a big truck if you don’t need one. It’s to make sure that any car you do own gets regular maintenance, especially oil changes. And if you’re not going to use it, at least drive it around the block every so often—at least long enough to let the fluids warm up and circulate.

The 2008 Toyota Camry--more than 600,000 miles isn't unusual. (Toyota photo)Peter Gilbert of Wisconsin drove a Saab 900 SPG—a model not typically associated with extreme longevity—more than a million miles. The Saab lived through eight deer collisions, which means the hood is once piece of equipment not original to the car. The transmission went at 200,000 miles, but the engine was never rebuilt.

Gilbert’s secret: regular maintenance, and lots of oil changes (with high-quality synthetic oil). That, and driving the wheels off the thing. The Saab liked that treatment, even when a Wisconsin winter was raging outside. It was retired to a museum--not because it wasn't still running well, but because it was rusting out.

Incidentally, iSeeCars also did a list without trucks and SUVs, and here the Japanese cars triumph—there are three Hondas, five Toyotas, three Subarus and a Nissan on the list. The Camry, for instance, is #5 on the list, and they typically go to huge mileage. The American cars that do well are the Ford Taurus (4) and the Chevrolet Impala (7). It was nice to see the Toyota Prius on that list—so much for the theory that the Prius, with two drivetrains, is complicated and will break down a lot.

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