When you’ve finally settled on what kind of used vehicle (make and model) you’d like to look for, the next most important factor to consider: What is good mileage on a used car? Of course, there’s much more to it than just the overall number. Understanding the best mileage for used cars can be tricky, but keep the following in mind to help inform your next purchase.
What is good mileage for a used car?
The average driver will travel about 13,500 miles a year (roughly 260 miles per week), so any vehicle with fewer miles than its age suggests “good” mileage—with some caveats. That should always be a benchmark number when considering the age of the used car and the mileage it already has.
The logical answer is that the lower the mileage on a used car, the better. In a perfect world, you’d probably always drive low-mileage, late-model vehicles. But that’s not feasible for most people, and even if it is, it’s not always ideal. For used cars, “good” mileage is about more than just the number—it’s also about how those miles were traveled.
Why does mileage matter?
Parts start to show their wear and break down over time. Determining good mileage on a used car means taking into consideration the vehicle’s age as well as the distance it has traveled and how those distances were traveled.
What does that mean, exactly? You need to research: Was the used car driven mostly on the highway or in the city, where lots of stopping and going can prematurely age the transmission? Did the car spend many miles on country backroads, where potholes and gravel can damage the suspension and undercarriage? Was it ever used on a track, with its engine pushed near its limits? That is why mileage on a used car matters.
What’s more important: mileage or model year?
The two can’t be evaluated separately because mileage and model year will always go hand in hand.
Mileage on a used car is always the starting point. A vehicle in the current model year may already have close to 10,000 miles after only four to six months of use. That may indicate the car has been driven pretty consistently—and possibly quite hard—during that short period of time. The plus side is that a newer model year might mean the car is still under warranty, so any wear and tear from the higher mileage can be handled without too much money coming out of your pocket.
Yet a lower mileage, older vehicle doesn’t necessarily mean you are better off. Sure, it’s great to find a classic car with low miles, but what happens when you start to drive that older car more often? The risk of running into problems is much greater on an older vehicle the higher the mileage gets.
Keep an eye out for those “great” deals on demo vehicles—cars driven by dealership staff, prospective customers and automotive journalists. They really are often too good to be true with low mileage and like-new looks. Those demo miles are likely to be harsh miles, especially from journalists who tend to be tough on vehicles in an attempt to provide a thorough review.
How to shop for high-mileage vehicles
High-mileage used cars don’t have to be avoided altogether. In fact, there are some bonuses to purchasing higher-mileage used cars. This is especially true if you are looking to purchase your first car. Because of the high mileage on the used car, the price is likely to be lower, which is an immediate bonus.
However, there are some key factors you need to keep in mind when shopping for high-mileage vehicles.
Research the most reliable makes and models
Yes, there are a few of them. Reliable resources like Kelley Blue Book and J.D. Power release yearly lists of the most reliable vehicles on the market as well as those with the best resale value. Honda and Toyota are consistently near the top of that list, but they aren’t the only ones. You might be surprised by some of the manufacturers you find near the top of those lists. Subsequently, the bottom-dwellers can be just as shocking.
Question how those miles were traveled
You’re allowed to ask how the car was used when determining good mileage on a used car. Question if the miles were mostly highway or city. Used models known for more off-road adventures, such as Jeep Wranglers, have a third type of miles traveled: rough ones. If the owner answers yes to heavy off-roading, then even if those miles are low, they were likely hardworking miles and could mean much more stress was put on the vehicle’s suspension and frame.
Unfortunately, there are no rules requiring a seller to be completely truthful with you about how a car got its mileage. If you have reason to doubt a seller’s claims (for example, they swear it’s mostly highway mileage but the car is registered and sold in a busy city), a trusted mechanic should be able to look at a few key indicators to determine whether their claim holds up.
Request all receipts and proof of garage work done on the car
As with any used vehicle purchase, you want to make sure you request all garage receipts to ensure that the vehicle was properly maintained. Higher-mileage cars should have all their liquids properly topped up and have a record of that particular maintenance as well.
While it’s common today for dealers to provide vehicle history reports, a private seller may be less inclined. In that case, you should definitely consider obtaining one on your own. While it’s not a substitute for full maintenance records, other information, such as the sale history, may help provide a bigger picture of where the car has been throughout its lifetime.
Examine the tires, brakes and suspension
When shopping for a high-mileage vehicle, remember that the components on the car getting the most use over those miles are the tires, brakes and suspension. Take a look at the tire tread depth, brake disc wear and tear and caliper use. A simple test drive may help reveal any shortcomings there; pay attention to how the brake pedal feels and keep the radio off and windows down if possible.
Listen for scraping, screeching or rubbing, and make sure you drive over a few bumpy patches to test the suspension as well. Listen for the same types of noises and pay attention to how the bumps feel. Do they feel too rough? There might be an issue with the suspension coils or even the bushings and ball joints. All this needs to be inspected with higher-mileage vehicles.
Is the vehicle manual or automatic?
This is significant, especially for cars with lots of city miles. If the used car you’re considering has a manual gearbox, a lot of stop-and-go driving will greatly impact the wear and tear on the clutch and transmission—no matter how good you are with a manual gearbox, no human can replicate the precision of an automatic.
Highway driving has about the same impact on both types of transmissions, but track driving should also be considered and questioned if the car is a manual.
How is the vehicle powered?
This can also impact the longevity of the vehicle, even if it’s new. Diesel engines are well-known for lasting longer than gas-powered engines, especially if they are well-maintained. Because there is very little maintenance to be done on electric vehicles—they have very few moving parts and barely any interior liquids—the best question to ask the previous owners is the type of charging stations used the most.
It’s relevant to ask if the owner was more apt to use Level 2 or 3 charging stations. In short, higher level charging stations place more strain on the battery. A Level 3 charger produces an average amperage of 20kW (occasionally 50kW), whereas a Level 1 only produces 1kW and a Level 2 between 3kW and 20kW, but typically 6kW.
While the higher charging level is optimal for a quick charge (often replenishing 80% battery power in just 30 minutes for a 124-mile range), it is taxing on the battery. The regenerative braking system and tire usage should also be looked at.
There are multiple factors to consider when purchasing a used vehicle, and determining whether or not it has good mileage is one of the most important. Remember that low mileage isn’t always good mileage, and that a new car with higher mileage isn’t always good, either, despite it being new. Do your research, and question how those miles were traveled.