12 subtle signs you need a new car

Sometimes you want to keep your car forever, but mostly not.

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Sometimes you want to keep your car forever, but mostly not.
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Michael Cole/Getty Images

  • An aging car will usually send signals that it’s time to start thinking about a new set of wheels.
  • Signs range from weird noises to escalating repair expenses to outdated technology.
  • While it’s possible to keep a well-maintained modern car running for hundreds of thousands of miles, sometimes it makes better sense to say goodbye and start fresh.

Modern cars can, if treated well, run almost forever. Hitting 100,000 miles is nothing these days, and some motorists have rolled over a million.

That said, even well-maintained vehicles can send signals that it’s time to think about buying a new car (or a new used car).

Read more: 21 cars that won’t let you down and are worth splurging on.

Often, these signs are subtle – your car whispers rather than shouts. For the first few years of ownership, a new car is under warranty, and the manufacturer will repair major problems.

But once you get past 50,000 miles, unless you purchase an extended warranty, you’re often on your own. That means listening to your car and studying its changes in mood.

The daily diagnostics will provide valuable clues and help you decide when it’s time to say goodbye to your old car and hello to a new set of wheels.


1. Weird noises or smells.

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Reuters/Nicky Loh

Cars aren’t supposed to smell strange or make weird noises. These are telltale signs of a problem – and common with cars that are wearing out and need to be replaced.

The noises are worse. If you hear a CHUNK, any kind of grinding, or a loud rattle, not to mention old favorites such as a backfire and a coarse idle, there’s a good chance that you’re in for a costly repair and it might be time to get some new wheels.


2. Leaks.

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Getty Images/Duane Prokop

Leaks aren’t the end of the line, but they’re often the beginning of the end. New cars don’t leak. Middle-aged cars leak a little. Old cars leak a lot. When you start to see a rainbow of liquid colors on the garage floor, it’s time to go to a new car dealer.


3. Smoke.

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Michael Cole/Getty Images

Like leaks, smoking can be repaired, but it usually indicates a serious underlying problem. The three main colors of smoke are black, gray, and white. Black isn’t always a big deal, as it usually means something is dirty with the filtration system. Gray means that the car is burning oil. A lot of gray and you’ll want think about a new ride. White is it the worst, as it could indicate serious engine problems such as cracked engine block or a leaking engine gasket.


4. Overheating.

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REUTERS/Jean-Paul Pelissier

Engines get hot. In cars that are in good shape, this is no problem except in the most extreme conditions. But if your temperature gauge often gets into the red zone, you car’s cooling system is on the fritz. Fixable, but problems often recur.


5. Technology debt.

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USC/Getty Images

Sometimes, a car’s infotainment system or driver-assist features simply aren’t up-to-date. This can mean poor GPS navigation, as well as reduction in safety. Manufacturers usually revamp cars every five-to-seven years, so if you own, say, a car from 2012, chances are good that you’re behind the tech curve.


6. Shaky steering.

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Benjamin Zhang/Business Insider

Steering in modern cars should be smooth. Shaking is an indication of poor alignment, tire balance, or a problem with the steering itself. A vehicle that’s been in an accident and suffered frame damage can exhibit funky steering.


7. Pieces falling off.

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Wikimedia Commons

Many of the non-essential parts of cars are made from plastic, which degrades over time. Eventually, a lot of knobs, buttons, and other interior features can simply start to fall off. If you’ve filled a shoe box with pieces, it’s time to think about a new car.


8. A repair that costs more than the car is worth.

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USC/Getty Images

Let’s say that, like me, you bought a used Saab 900S for $6,000 and happily drove it for about 10 years. Eventually, the car depreciated to the point where it was worth about $1,000 and had been in a fender-bender that damaged the front. One day, the radiator conked out, and that cost about $600 to get fixed.

Two such repairs each year would cost more than the car was worth, so I was preparing to get rid of it and buy a new, more reliable car.


9. Awkward transmission shifts or declining fuel economy.

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Joe Raedle/Getty

A modern automatic transmission should always shift fairly smoothly. If yours doesn’t, then you could have a major repair on your hands. It’s an old standby in the car-ownership world that once the transmission and engine start breaking up, your car isn’t going to be much fun anymore.

Dipping fuel economy is also a bad sign. If you’ve been getting 20-25 mpg combined from city/highway driving, then you drop below 20 mpg, you’re on the road to losing money every year.


10. Poor emissions tests.

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Thomson Reuters

In my experience, this one is a stressful, bottomless pit. Every time you need get your car checked for a new registration, you’re up against a repair to deal with a test failure. Save yourself the anguish a get a new vehicle that will pass with ease.


11. The odometer is closing in on 100,000 miles.

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John Gress/Reuters

This is old-timer stuff, but your car’s odometer can give you a good estimate of what you might have in store. Assuming you drive 15-20,000 miles every year, your car will hit 100,000 miles around the 5-7 year mark. That’s when the serious repairs are called for, such as the timing belt, new brake rotors, and wholesale replacement of engine parts that have been exposed to heat and friction for a while.

Even if you been faithful about maintenance, 100,000 miles means a reality check.


12. You just made you last loan payment.

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Screenshot via KPCC.org

Now you have a clear choice: own the car free and clear and drive it until the wheels fall off or it’s worth next to nothing (see me and my Saab, above); or celebrate by trading in your old car for something new and start the process all over again.

If you do this every five years, you’ll always be in an auto loan, but you’ll also always be driving a vehicle that’s up-to-date.

If you do this every seven years, and you take out five-year loans, you’ll have two years of no payments. I recommend this plan.