ORLANDO, Fla. — It has faded paint, a leaking sunroof and 295,000 miles on the odometer, but Joey Rodriguez doesn't plan to stop driving his 1995 Nissan 200SX any time soon.
"My mechanic told me it's one of the cleanest engines he's ever seen," said Rodriguez, a building inspector. "It's paid off. If I (found) a car with the same kind of gas mileage, I'd end up with another car payment — much more than I want to spend right now."
Rodriguez, who lives in St. Cloud, Fla., is one of a growing number of Americans hanging on to older cars. The economic downturn, longer loan terms and hardier engines are discouraging drivers from turning in their clunkers.
U.S. cars are now on average about 11 years old, according to automotive-research firm R.L. Polk & Co. Nineteen percent of drivers surveyed by market-research company NPD Group reported owning a vehicle 15 years or older, compared with 14 percent five years ago.
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Several things are driving the trend.
During the recession, "consumers found value in keeping their existing cars on the road," said David Portalatin, an industry analyst for NPD Group. "For consumers who don't have the credit or the income to finance a new vehicle, it makes a lot of sense to continue to repair these cars and keep them going."
Longer-term car loans have also discouraged people from trading in their cars earlier. A standard loan used to last three to five years, said Bryan Funke, a director with Polk. Now, that has grown to six years.
Experts also say engines these days last longer, and some manufacturers are offering longer warranties.
"The cars are built so much better now," said Jim Zych, who owns an auto-repair shop in Forest City, Fla. "They go so much farther than they used to."
Brakes, mufflers and exhaust systems don't have to get replaced as often, he added.
But like people, cars need more maintenance and repairs as they get older. Richelle White's strategy for keeping those costs under control is to get her 1995 Pontiac into the shop as soon as she sees a problem.
"I try to pay attention to everything," said White, 32, of Orlando. "Usually, if you find the problem earlier, it's way cheaper to fix."
The Sunfire has dents on the sides — so many that she has gotten approached by a repairman in a parking lot asking whether she would like to get it fixed. But "I have no problem driving older cars," she said.