Keep Your Ride: Maintaining That New Car Feel

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R.L. Polk says that even though the economy is improving, we’re keeping our cars longer than ever. According to Polk’s study of registration data,  in the third quarter of 2011, Americans were keeping their cars for a record 71 months. We’re keeping used cars longer, too. The average length of ownership for a used car is 50 months. So what do you do to keep the romance (and smell) of vehicle ownership fresh?

With proper maintenance, it’s simple to squeeze a decade or 150,000 miles out of a new car. The routine “tune-up” items that used to require replacement every 15,000 miles — spark plugs, plug wires — are now good for 100,000 miles, if they’re even in the car anymore. Distributor caps and rotors, which required frequent replacement, aren’t even under the hood anymore.

So we turn cars in not because we need to, but because we want to. We get bored with the same old car in the driveway. Eyes wander when we see a new model as we drive past the car lot. When it comes to cars, we’re unabashedly unfaithful.

Like a long weekend on Cape Cod, a spa treatment or a change in hairstyle, there’s a limitless number of tweaks and modifications we can perform to reignite the romance. The Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) — the trade association that represents the aftermarket industry — noted that in the first quarter of 2010, consumer demand for aftermarket products reached a frenzied pace.

SEMA produces an annual market report that retailers use as a forecasting tool. The index showed that the aftermarket In 2012, the specialty-equipment market grew to $31 billion, marking the third year of consecutive growth, suggesting that as Americans are keeping their cars longer, they’re also buying accessories to help make their cars as fresh as possible.

There’s a lot you can do to keep your vehicle fresh without investing a ton of money in it. We’ll start from cheap and move up to more expensive:

Detailing:

Detailing

Nothing you’ll do to your car will make it feel as fresh as a proper detail, both inside and out. There’s a shelf full of products at your local auto parts store that can help you do it yourself, but there’s something really nice about dropping your car off to a professional detailer, and picking it up as fresh as it left the factory.

A complete detail, including a hand-wash and dry, engine compartment detailing, clay bar treatment, polish and wax, carpet shampoo, interior cleaning and conditioning, plus sterilization and deodorizing the interior should run about $125, depending on your location. Most detailers work with paintless dent removal specialists, so if you’re looking to have a few dings worked out, you can get information there, too.

Audio:

Audio

Audio enhancements are next on the list because upgrading can be inexpensive and dramatic. For example, when I had a 1968 Buick Riviera, I spent $100 having an auxiliary input jack connected to the old Sonomatic AM radio in the dash, so I was able to enjoy my iPhone’s music and podcasts without modifying the dash. From there, you can add thousands of dollars in subwoofers and elaborate head units, but an upgrade from a crappy old CD player to something with Bluetooth can keep you interested in your car for years to come.

Wheels and Tires:

Wheels

All these years of car ownership, I’ve only purchased one set of aftermarket wheels, and they made a truly dramatic difference in my ownership experience. I liked my 1996 Buick Roadmaster when it had its original wheels. I absolutely fell in love with it when I purchased a set of 15-inch American Racing Torq-Thrust wheels, shod with BF Goodrich Radial T/As. It made the car, and I get compliments on it regularly. For $900 total (on a tax-free holiday in Massachusetts. Bonus!) it was the best money I’ve ever spent on a car. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

There are some online tire resources that can provide you with fully mounted and balanced wheels and tires, but local shops can be really helpful, too. The guys at the wheel shop I dealt with guided me away from another set of wheels and into the Torq-Thrusts due to build quality, and I couldn’t be happier.

You can spend a fortune on aftermarket goodies, and still have a car that’s not worth anything to anyone but you, so keep a dollar figure in mind when you’re making a decision. If you budget three car payments a year on keeping what you’ve got, you’re ahead by thousands every year.

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