Repelled by high car prices, Americans are holding on to their vehicles longer than ever
With new and used cars still painfully expensive, Ryan Holdsworth says he plans to keep his nine-year-old Chevy Cruze for at least four more years. Limiting his car payments and his overall debt is a bigger priority for him than having a new vehicle. A 35-year-old grocery store worker from Grand Rapids, Michigan, Holdsworth would probably be in the market for a vehicle within a few years - if not for the high cost. For now, it's out of the question.
“You’re not going to get one for a price you can afford," he said.
Holdsworth has plenty of company. Americans are keeping their cars longer than ever. The average age of a passenger vehicle on the road hit a record 12.5 years this year, according to data gathered by S&P Global Mobility. Sedans like Holdsworth's are even older, on average - 13.6 years.
Blame it mainly on the pandemic, which in 2020 triggered a global shortage of automotive computer chips, the vital component that runs everything from radios to gas pedals to transmissions. The shortage drastically slowed global assembly lines, making new vehicles scarce on dealer lots just when consumers were increasingly eager to buy.
Prices reached record highs. And though they've eased somewhat, the cost of a vehicle still feels punishingly expensive to many Americans, especially when coupled with now much-higher loan rates.
Since the pandemic struck three years ago, the average new vehicle has rocketed 24% to nearly $48,000 as of April, according to Edmunds.com. Typical loan rates on new-car purchases have ballooned to 7%, a consequence of the Federal Reserve's aggressive streak of interest rate hikes to fight inflation.
It’s all pushed the national average monthly auto loan payment to $729 — prohibitively high for many. Experts say a family earning the median U.S. household income can no longer afford the average new car payment and still cover such necessities as housing, food and utilities.
Used vehicle prices, on average, have surged even more since the pandemic hit — up 40 per cent, to nearly $29,000. With an average loan rate having reached 11%, the typical monthly used-vehicle payment is now $563.
Faced with deciding between making a jumbo payment and keeping their existing vehicles, more owners are choosing to stick with what they have, even if it means spending more on repairs and maintenance.
Auto mechanics have been struck by the rising ages and mileages of vehicles that now arrive at the shop in numbers they'd never seen before.
“You see cars all the time in here with 250,000, 300,000 miles," said Jay Nuber, owner of Japanese Auto Professional Service, a repair garage near downtown Ann Arbor, Michigan. “They haven’t been really having major work or anything. They’ve just been doing the (routine) service."
It doesn't mean that most owners of older vehicles are necessarily stuck with constant repair bills. One reason people can hold their vehicles for increasingly long periods is that auto manufacturing has improved over time. Engines run longer. Bodies don't rust as quickly. Components last longer.
Yet the cost of buying either a new or used vehicle is leaving more people with essentially no choice but to keep the one they have.
“The repair-versus-buy equation changed," said Todd Campau, an associate director with S&P. Even with rising repair costs, Campau said, it's still typically more cost-effective to fix an older vehicle than to spring for a purchase.
The average vehicle age, which has been edging up since 2019, accelerated this year by a substantial three months. And while 12.5 years is the average, Campau noted, more vehicles are staying on the road for 20 years or more, sometimes with three or four successive owners.
In such cases, the third or fourth owner is getting a much older car than they would have in the past. Nearly 122 million vehicles on the road are more than a dozen years old, Campau said. S&P predicts that the number of older vehicles will keep growing until at least 2028.
Even with more durable vehicles able to last longer, all of this has created a boom time for auto shops. Throughout most of last year, Nuber's Japanese Auto was overwhelmed with customers. It took up to three weeks to get an appointment, whether for repairs or the routine maintenance that older vehicles, in particular, require.
“The phone just kept ringing, and the cars just kept coming," Nuber said.
It's now at the point where some vehicle owners must decide whether to pay for a repair that costs more than their vehicle is worth. That's where many of them draw the line, said Dave Weber, manager at Japanese Auto.
On Friday, Weber said, one customer needed rear brakes, wheel bearings and exhaust system repairs. The customer decided to do only half the repairs and wait until later to decide whether to sink more money into the ageing vehicle.
“They patch them up and drive them for however long, until the next major repair," Weber said.
S&P predicts that U.S. new vehicle sales will reach 14.5 million this year, from about 13.9 million last year. A big reason is that the supply at dealerships is finally growing. Automakers have also begun to restore some discounts that had long helped keep a lid on prices. The result is that many people who can afford to buy can now do so. It's a trend that could slow the advancing age of the U.S. fleet and boost overall sales.
Still, no one is predicting a return to pre-pandemic annual sales of around 17 million anytime soon. Even with discounts, new-vehicle prices are likely to stay much higher than pre-pandemic levels for years to come.
As for Holdsworth, the Chevy Cruze owner, he plans to keep up with the scheduled maintenance on his car, especially routine oil changes. Even if he encountered a major repair, he thinks he'd probably pay for it.
Having bought his vehicle two years ago, Holdsworth has about two years of payments left. So his Cruze, too, may reach the 12.5-year-old national average.
“I’ll finish paying it off," he said, “and drive it for a couple more years."