Motoring: Long distance cars can be better by miles

Six figures is only the beginning, James Ruppert says as he slips comfortably into his used Saab
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The Independent Online
When Olivia Katherine Ruppert arrived blinking into the world in April, I was prepared. In the hospital car park was her first car - and only the best would do. I wanted the safest model I could buy, with air conditioning, a huge boot to take all the baby paraphernalia, a smooth automatic gearbox and easy-to-clean leather upholstery. However, to buy the ultimate baby carriage new would cost a small fortune. The Saab 9000 S I chose cost over pounds 21,000 when it was new in 1991, yet more than five years later I paid less than a quarter of that. The biggest contributory factor to the low price were the 115,000 recorded miles. That is because used car buyers and sellers have a simple creed: low mileage good, high mileage bad.

They couldn't be more wrong. High-mileage cars are in much better mechanical condition than their sickly low-mileage counterparts. Since 1970 the average life of a car has effectively doubled. Once upon a time 50,000 miles signalled the end of a vehicle's viable existence. Now is is the rule rather than the exception for a car to reach a six-figure mileage without any major breakdowns. Improved production techniques, finer engineering tolerances, improved anti-corrosion treatments and the use of galvanised steel have all undoubtedly helped. However, it is still up to the owners to do their bit.

At Stevens & Stevens, a small independent Volkswagen and Audi garage in east London, they look after dozens of high-mileage business cars and low-mileage shopping and school run hatchbacks. They know the secret: "regular servicing".

Well they would say that wouldn't they? But they should know. "Short journeys are the worst," Mr Stevens said. "The engine does not have time to reach its proper working temperature and that dramatically shortens its life. The key is clean oil. Once it turns black on the dipstick it is not doing its job properly. Low mileage cars really ought to have their oil changed every 3,000 to 5,000 miles."

There are other considerations. "Locally-used cars also tend to pick up a lot more minor damage in the supermarket car park and wear out clutches and gearboxes much more quickly. A well looked after car which has covered big motorway distances over a few years is always going to be the better-used vehicle."

That made me feel much more confident about my Saab, which had averaged around 25,000 miles a year. The service history was comprehensive, detailing every oil change and overhaul over the previous five years. Any lingering doubts about longevity were dispelled when I dropped the car into my local specialists for a post-purchase check.

I drove away in a service-loan Saab 9000 that had quarter of a million miles on the clock. Admittedly it felt slightly loose, like a comfortable old jacket, yet there was no need for elbow patches, or a new lining just yet. There were no serious rattles, squeaks, or lack of power from the still quite eager two-litre engine.

Clearly, some cars can take the punishment better than others. It is hard to generalise, but the vast majority of high mileage survivors are German or Swedish.

At the 1995 London Motor Show Volkswagen UK displayed a sectioned engine that had covered 500,000 miles in a Golf with no discernible wear. One VW customer, David Langley, sailed past the half-million-mile mark some time ago in a 1985 Passat 1.8. He wants to reach a million.

A Porsche specialist, Michael Ticehurst, has no hesitation in buying high mileage examples to resell. "Frankly at 80,000 miles plus they have only just been run in. They perform better and are much more reliable. Ultra-low mileage examples deteriorate faster. The engine bores dry out and get damaged when restarted, and they can be complete nightmares if they have been parked in a garage for any length of time."

Ben Berry of Saaben, a specialist in used Saabs, says: "In the trade, everyone knows that high-mileage, open road cars are in better shape than their low-mileage town-driven counterparts. And they are always thousands of pounds cheaper." So the next time you see a used car advertisement stating "one owner, genuine low mileage" stop reading and seek out the line in another ad that reads "high mileage, hence low price".

Stevens & Stevens 0181 989 9809; Michael Ticehurst 01491 680911l; Saaben 01753 647657

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