USED CARS: Mileage is a Lousy Indicator of Condition

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(Ed. Note: Used Car guru Steven Lang digs into why hours are a much more accurate indication of overall condition.)

100,000… 200,000… 250,000…

In a world where all things are equal, these kind of mileage numbers wouldn’t matter at all.

A lot of folks ignore two critical things when it comes to a used car.

1) Mileage doesn’t always equal age.

2) Mileage never equals condition.


At the wholesale auctions where millions of vehicles sell every year, I have seen cars with only 30,000 or fewer miles that were as cranky as Mel Gibson at a Bar Mitzvah.

I have also seen cars with over 300,000 miles that were rolling pieces of perfection. A 2001 Toyota Camry with over 385,000 miles at one of the sales I recently visited went for nearly $2000.

It. Looked. Amazing.

The doors closed with that same thunk you would expect from a new car. The surface was as smooth as a brand new windshield, and the gleam of the interior would have even made my OCD mom blush with envy.

But was it still good? Did the engine and transmission that propelled that car have many more miles ahead?

I don’t know, and that to me is an incredibly frustrating thing. Those miles don’t really add up to an informed $2,000 decision. Even for a car buying professional like me who buys hundreds of vehicles every year. The odometer behind that car just didn’t add up.

But you know what would help me (and not to mention a few of you) a lot?

Engine hours.

Hammer Time: Miles Don't Matter

Take this turbocharged diesel engine for example. The 1.9 Liter Volkswagen engine you see here also happens to be have an engine life.

It’s estimated life? It could be 25,000 hours. Or maybe 15,000 hours. One thing is for sure though. You won’t find the answer in your owner’s manual. But if you bought this Volkswagen engine for a mid-level commercial application, you would find out from the get-go that the engine will last 15,000 hours on average.

Hardly any cars give any indication of true engine life. There are always clues. But the numbers that would help you give an educated guess – such as compression, oil usage, and hours of operation – are nowhere to be found.

There are a precious few vehicles that do display current engine hours on the dashboard along with the odometer. Police cars and heavy duty trucks can be equipped to measure engine hours along with an odometer rating which is considered far less important engine hours when it comes to timely maintenance. Highway patrol cars in particular spend endless hours idling about, and all this use does wear on the vehicle over time.


A conventional vehicle that sits in traffic for several hundred hours a year will usually have more wear than a car that simply keeps going at a steady highway speed. Idling causes stress. As does neglect and abuse. But without a few numbers it’s not so easy to determine the degree of wear until the vehicle is already as wore out as an old mop.

Do you think engine hours would be useful information for a used car buyer? Should there possibly be a similar measurement for the longevity of the transmissions? Could the technology of today maybe even go so far as to give car owners an “estimated life left” percentage that wouldn’t serve as a legal minefield or a numerical boondoggle?

I think it would do wonders for keeping and investing in an awful lot of used cars that have an unknown past. What say you?