Car Mileage vs Age – Answering The Age-Old Debate

Firstly, let me say the pun in the title of this article is definitely, unequivocally, 100% intended.

Now, with that aside, let’s look at one of the most eternal and everlasting debates in the history of the world is whether mileage or age matters more when buying a car.

In this article, I’m going to explain why neither of them is as important as you might think – but also why you should consider both factors.

I’m not going to tell you that age and mileage have no bearing or relevance on whether or not you should buy a car – they both do. However, it’s for reasons that differ from what you might think.

Let’s dig deeper:

Why Age & Mileage Do Matter – To An Extent

It would be crazy to say that age and mileage have no potential bearing on a car’s condition.

After all, age and mileage both dictate that the car has been subject to some form of wear and tear.

These two “measures” also matter for a few specific reasons:

  • Both age and mileage are factors in whether or not specific items of maintenance are required for a car. For example, if you’re considering buying a used Alfa Romeo, you’ll probably know that it’s critical to have the cambelt replaced as per the manufacturer’s recommendations (which can sometimes be as low as every three years for some models)
  • The more mileage is on a car, the more likely there will be general signs of wear and tear. Even if a car is maintained impeccably, you’ll notice seat wear, interior trim wear, paint finish degradation etc.
  • Age and mileage both heavily influence a car’s value (more on that later). Some people love a good “high mileage bargain” but these cars can often have diminished resale value, which might be an important consideration.

Both Are Just Proxy Measurements

Realistically, age and mileage are proxy measurements for the measurement that actually matters – condition.

And, by extension, age and mileage then become key factors in another measurement that matters to car buyers – depreciation.

Depreciation is the reduction in value of an asset over time, through wear and tear from use. Both age and mileage therefore inherently imply a degradation of condition, resulting in depreciation.

In other words, diminishing condition is the primary cause of depreciation, which is in turn influenced by a car’s age and mileage.

However, we can all surely accept that a car could be a day old and in terrible condition (and therefore liable to bad depreciation) if it is rammed up the back by a lorry.

Age and mileage are objective measures – 100,000 miles is 10x more than 10,000 miles. 20 years is double 10, and so on.

Condition, on the other hand, is more subjective. What one person perceives as a car in “impeccable condition” might be a bit of a pup to the next person.

Realistically, I think this is why car buyers fixate on age and mileage so much – because both are easy measures to understand and interpret because of their unequivocal nature.

As to which is more important? Honestly, I think they are on a level footing in most cases. What matters far more is how the car has been used, cared for, treated and maintained.

The biggest “edge” that age has as a factor in picking a car is that newer cars have better features. Even basic cars these days like my Suzuki Swift Sport come with features that were once the preserve of luxury vehicles many times the price of my humble hatchback.

If you need good safety kit, if you need factory Apple Carplay and Android Auto, if you must have radar cruise, then you’re going to have to pick a newer car and probably accept one that’s lived a harder-than-average life if you have a set budget.

I’d take an older car in great condition over a newer car in crap condition any day of the week, unless that newer car was the only way to get a certain feature that I needed wanted (for example, it doesn’t matter how much you try, you cannot make an old Toyota Corolla as safe as a new one – so if you are wanting a newer car you might need to sacrifice and get a car with more wear and tear on it).

I’ve inspected and test driven relatively new, low mileage cars that have been beat up worse than Mike Tyson’s early opponents.

Equally, I’ve inspected and test driven old cars with Star Trek mileage that have been lovingly cared for, serviced and maintained, and which are therefore in excellent condition for their age and mileage.

Conclusion – What Matters More, Car Age or Mileage?

Neither.

What matters most is condition, and how a car has been maintained.

Age and mileage are just ways to “guesstimate” a car’s condition. They are yardsticks that can potentially be valuable with respect to assessing potential depreciation on a car, and nothing more than that when you really break it down.

An old, high-mileage car is probably more likely to be in worse condition than a new, low mileage one (that’s what wear and tear is about) but there’s no guarantee. That’s why you should always focus first and foremost on properly inspecting a car and ascertaining its condition.

Think about planes for a moment. Many planes you’d fly on – which are perfectly safe and reliable – are old and with literally millions of miles on the clock. Because they are maintained to strict standards, they keep going and going and going. There will undoubtedly be some areas of wear and tear, but the “vehicle” remains perfectly serviceable because it has been properly cared for.

However, if you really pressed me as to whether I cared more about age or mileage, I’d probably say that age is the more important consideration because age will directly impact on the feature set that the car has. A newer car will typically have more standard features, which is worth considering. Mileage doesn’t have any impact whatsoever on the features that a car comes with.

But ultimately I care about overall condition the most – and so should you. That is the ultimate arbiter of a vehicle’s quality. That’s why (shameless plug alert) you should check out the growing list of comprehensive buyer’s guides on this site that will help you to find a great condition car.

Of course this does not answer the question of why a car that has just pulled off the lot drops like a rock value-wise, when there is basically no age or mileage on it (I’ll explain that in another article TBC)

What do you think about the car mileage vs age debate? It would be great to hear your take – feel free to leave a comment below to start the discussion.

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