Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Car Shopping

My car is nearing the end of its life. Realistically, I can’t expect it to run more than about another 80,000 miles, or 6 years.

The fact that I can make that assessment of a car that I’ve driven for 12 years and 125,000 miles, after it was already driven 35,000 miles by its original owner, is a measure of how much the auto industry is changing. After all, a quarter of a century ago, 6 years, 80,000 miles was about all the average car buyer really expected of a new car.

Yesterday, I was the driver on a car-shopping expedition. The objective was to replace a car that had conked out after 15 years and 206,000 miles. The replacement turned out to be a slightly newer version of the same thing, around the middle of its life at 91,000 miles. We found out quickly, with an online search, that prices of used cars have fallen compared to two years ago. Even the practical fuel-efficient commuter cars seemed to be less expensive than they were toward the end of the boom, but other categories seemed to be down by about 15 percent. Sales of new cars may have fallen by a third, but it isn’t because shoppers are buying all the used cars out there. The picture at car dealers confirmed this. We didn’t see any other customers all day. New and used cars were spread out across the front of the lot, in a space that previously might not have held the entire new car inventory. One car had been forgotten for long enough that it had to be jump-started for the test drive.

The auto industry’s sales numbers, which showed signs of optimism last winter, now seem to have fallen back to the previous downward trend. September new car sales were up only when compared to the post-Clunkers lull of September 2009. There was nevertheless an air of optimism around the car dealers we visited. The boom years of fuel-burning cars may not be coming back any time soon, but there is still work to be done.

The repair department is the one part of the auto industry that hasn’t seen a decline. People are driving almost as much as ever, so the cars still need tires, oil changes, and replacement parts. The transition from the prior five-year replacement cycle for cars to a 20-year cycle (or wherever things settle out in the end) couldn’t come without a decline in sales, but that doesn’t mean that cars are going away.