The average age of cars on the road now is 11.5 years, which says good things about the reliability of today's auto fleet. But just because the cars are that age doesn't mean the original purchasers keep them that long. Many of those oldsters are on their second or third owners.
So which cars do original owners hold on to? Iseecars.com just crunched the numbers (it's a Big Data company) and came up with a list that maps the fate of 15 2005-model-year vehicles. And guess what? They're all Japanese! Not a Korean, German or domestic in sight. In fact, they come from only three carmakers: Toyota, Honda and Subaru.
I asked Phong T. Ly, founder and CEO of Iseecars.com, a rather existential question. He said these cars have "a reputation for reliability." I said, yeah, but are they keeping them because of that reputation — they're not afraid of stuff falling off, as they might be with a domestic — or are they keeping them because they're reliable on the road? "The latter," he said.
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So, in descending order, here are the 15 cars that people keep the most:
Honda CR-V (28.6 percent keep it 10 years or more, 2 times the average);
Toyota Prius (28.5 percent keep it at least 10 years, 2 times the average);
Toyota RAV4 (28.2 percent keep it 10 years, 2 times the average);
Toyota Highlander (26.5 percent keep it 10 years, 2 times the average);
Honda Odyssey (25.6 percent keep it 10 years, 1.9 times the average);
Toyota Sienna (25.4 percent keep it 10 years, 1.9 times the average);
Toyota Camry (24.4 percent keep it at least 10 years, 1.8 times the average);
Toyota Avalon (23.8 percent keep it at least 10 years, 1.8 times the average);
Honda Pilot (23.3 percent keep it at least 10 years, 1.7 times the average);
Honda Element (23.1 percent keep it at least 10 years, 1.7 times the average);
Subaru Forester (22.9 percent keep it at least 10 years, 1.7 times the average);
Toyota Matrix (22.6 percent keep it at least 10 years, 1.7 times the average);
Honda Accord (22.1 percent keep it at least 10 years, 1.6 times the average);
Toyota Corolla (21.5 percent keep it at least 10 years, 1.6 times the average);
Toyota 4Runner (21.1 percent keep it at least 10 years, 1.6 times the average).
It's a striking list. Beyond there being nothing domestic on it, Ly points out that "10 of the 15 are crossovers or minivans — it's largely family cars."
So we have to do some amateur psychology. After five years, the average kid-filled minivan or crossover may look nice from 20 feet, but inside, the car-seat set have wreaked their havoc — Cheerios are glued to the carpets with sticky juice and nobody got around to fixing that cracked window hit by a flying Happy Meal toy.
Look familiar? It should, it's the 2005 Honda Odyssey minivan, and a zillion are still on the road transporting rugrats. (Photo: Wikipedia)
Still, the owners seem to want to hold onto these family barges — maybe because they're familiar and hold lots of memories. Also, minivan owners are focused on raising their kids, not on driving some status wagon. Since nine of the 15 on the list are Toyotas, it's obvious that families trust the Japanese brand for reliable transportation.
The Prius stands out on the list, both because it's the only "green" car there and because it placed so high. When Toyota first launched the model in the U.S., in 2000, the smart money had it that the two-drivetrain thing meant that these cars would always be in the shop. Instead, they're among the most reliable cars on the road, rated by Consumer Reports.
Americans buy tons of domestic pickups — the Ford F-150 is the perennial number one in vehicle sales in the U.S. So why don't people hold on to them? One reason, Ly suggests, is that a lot of them lead tough lives as work vehicles and log a lot of miles quickly. The three most popular pickups were below average on the list: Only 11.4 percent of Ford F-150 owners keep them 10 years or more (only 0.8 times the average). The Chevy Silverado 1500 had a 13.1 percent score (about average) and the Dodge Ram Pickup 1500 11.7 percent (only 0.8 times the average). One of the worst scorers was the popular Jeep Grand Cherokee: only 9.5 percent of owners keep one of those for 10 years or more (only 0.7 times the average).
The highest ranking car on the list was — get ready for it — the '05 Pontiac Vibe. Remember those? The Vibe was a hybrid, but not in the powertrain sense. It was essentially a Toyota Matrix badged as a Pontiac — and assembled at the California NUMMI factory now operated by Tesla. Vibes were dead reliable, far more than any other model from the late, lamented Pontiac that year. The Vibe's score was a decent 17.5 percent, but is it an American or Japanese car?
Domestics that scraped the bottom of the list include the Chevrolet Impala, Chrysler Sebring and Ford Taurus, but as Ly points out, all three were heavily sold into rental fleets, and as such would have been on their second or third owner after 10 years.
There is value, by the way, in buying a used car from its original owner. People who brought their rides home from the showroom tend to respect them more and keep up maintenance even as they age. For the fourth or fifth owner, such cars are usually just disposable transportation.