Opinion | Dear Prius, after 163,000 miles, you and I are not done yet


When some 92 million Americans are expected to hit the nation’s roads this Labor Day weekend, more of them will be driving used cars than ever before. I will be among them – behind the wheel of my Toyota Prius, which just turned 14 in September. This is the longest car I have ever owned. I used to lease a great crossover vehicle, with a new car every 36 months; now, my little red hybrid’s odometer has passed the 163,000 mile mark.

I didn’t know I’d end up being fashionable by hanging onto the car so long: The average age of vehicles owned by Americans in 2022 is a record 12.2 years, according to a report by S&P Global Mobility. This includes sedans, trucks and SUVs; for sedans, it’s 13.1 years. The number has increased for five consecutive years. Twenty years ago, the average age of cars on American roads was about 9.5 years.

The trend seems certain to continue: new cars are extremely expensive. The average price of gas, which we’re supposed to be happy about is just $3.85 per gallon on average nationwide, is likely to return to $5 per gallon by the end of the year, according to Goldman Sachs.

Looks like my Prius and I are going for 200,000 miles. There are some scratches and chipped paint, but the body and especially the interior are in great shape. I’ve driven that car north, south, east and west, Boston to San Diego, Montreal to New Orleans, where I live now.

My mechanic said that, with regular maintenance, the car could easily last 25 years (assuming it doesn’t get swallowed by one of the Big Easy’s monster potholes that pop up on Instagram).

Why did I go from renting gas vehicles to a long-term relationship with a hybrid? I went to see “An Inconvenient Truth,” the 2006 documentary made by former Vice President Al Gore. With alarm bells ringing over climate change, I investigated car options and made the leap to a gas-electric hybrid two years later.

One reason people are increasingly likely to keep driving cars instead of trading them in is that the quality of vehicles has improved greatly over the past two decades. But the high price and limited availability of new cars is another major factor.

Thanks to the relentless popularity of SUVs and trucks, the average vehicle now costs a staggering $48,182 – the most ever. However, even if you want to spend that much, good luck finding the object of your automotive dreams. Since the start of the pandemic, auto production around the world has been hampered by shortages of computer chips and disruptions in supplies of other parts.

Prospective customers are disappointed — as are dealers who would normally sell off their supplies of 2022 model year vehicles and prepare for the shiny sheet metal that marks the October start of the 2023 model year.

I recently saw the problem firsthand while sitting in the waiting area of ​​a Toyota dealership, wasting time while work was being done on my car. Nearby, a longtime customer seemed ready to buy a new car, but then learned that the model she wanted wasn’t available. The salesman worked hard to get her into a vehicle she didn’t want – but the woman quickly left.

With new vehicles so scarce, used car prices have soared, with Q1 2022 prices up 22 percent over the same period in 2021 and 48 percent over 2020. Pre-owned vehicles have always been in demand, although they receive little attention compared to those late models. The ratio of used car sales to new vehicles last year was about 3 to 1 – 43 million used vehicles were sold last year, compared to about 15 million new ones.

Consumer Reports said this spring that “dealers are scrambling to buy as many used cars as possible to satisfy customer demand, and that means you can get top dollar if you’re looking to sell or trade.”

My Prius is not for sale. I have had no car payments for almost a decade. Insurance and gas cost about $150 a month. In the last five years, I have spent less than $3,000 on maintenance and repairs, including new tires.

With just 112 horsepower, the car doesn’t offer the road-dominant feeling that luxury crossovers did in my rental days. Sometimes I am shocked by the bigger vehicles. Then again, sometimes SUVs and pickups get covered by those giant New Orleans potholes while my Prius scoots around them—the car may be old, but it’s still nimble.

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