It’s a classic car-buying scenario: you find a listing for a ride in fantastic condition with crazy low miles on the odometer considering its age. A 2010 Caddy with only 8K on the dash? A showroom-worthy Lexus coupe from the mid-aughts that’s barely been broken in? Turns out those barely-driven rides you come across aren’t always sure buys, according to a senior scientist at Valvoline, the oil company that’s been under your hood for over 140 years. Here’s some little-used car buying advice from a guy not named Saul (she’s a woman named Erin).
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A “Grandma car” isn't always great...
Erin Findley, a Senior Scientist at Valvoline, says that “You hear a lot about 'Grandma cars' on the used market. When I think of how a grandmother might drive, in the summertime she just goes to church, the grocery store and back, then she doesn’t use the car all winter. It sits in the garage.”
Because sitting is the enemy
It turns out that sitting isn’t just terrible for office workers, it’s bad for cars too! “When an engine is just sitting for months or years, it doesn’t get up to temperature, and natural moisture in the air can condense and water can eventually get into your engine or form sludge. That leads to corrosion.” says Findley. Corrosion is a bad thing because it can cause your engine to run rough, or eventually seize up.
And life on a highway can be a good thing
It may be a staple phrase in those print used-car ads they have stacks of at the ancient gas station that pretty much just sells vaping supplies now, but the old “highway miles” adage -- that a car’s mechanical systems have had less wear and tear than a city-driven vehicle with similar number on the odometer -- well, that turns out to be mostly true. “There’s definitely less wear in twenty daily miles on a highway than twenty miles daily in town,” says Findley.
And start-and-stop city driving is a bad thing
Are you sensing a trend here? As in many other facets of life, lubrication is key. “The hardest thing you do to your car is starting up the engine, it builds up a lubricant film on the parts. When the engine is going, that film is kind of kept there from the motion of the engine; when it stops, you don’t have that full of a film,’ says Findley. So when a car is driven in a city or town with lots of stop signs and red lights, all that braking and accelerating can take its toll.
You're still going to have to take it to a mechanic
You'd take a beater normally, but if you think this "gem" doesn't need it, you'd be wrong. Regardless of the miles, “Mechanics can tell you about any obvious problems the car’s had,” says Findley. “You could tell a lot more if you could have them break down the engine, but that’s not something you’re going to do.” Definitely not.
Looks can be deceiving
That irresponsible, fun sports car with low miles might be a better choice than the innocuous sedan with the same wear and tear. “Performance cars, sports and muscle cars -- a lot of the time these guys are changing the oil often, and winterizing their car,” says Findley. Even if you show up and the guy’s got meatball stains on his tank top, don’t run -- chances are he treats his car better than his clothes.
Tires wear out even without use
Even if tires were relatively new at the time a car began to sit in storage, and still have plenty of tread, it doesn’t mean they’re safe to drive on. And this problem isn’t easy to eyeball, like worn tread. Sunlight, heat and cold all degrade tire compounds whether the car is being driven or not. Many car manufacturers are now warning that tires expire six years after they’re produced. So even if you pick up Grandma’s 1990s Lincoln Continental for a steal, and it’s drivable -- change those tires, ASAP. And start shopping for some cassette tapes.