Piston Slap: New York State and the 5-Digit Odometer's Death?

Sajeev Mehta
by Sajeev Mehta
Edward writes:

Here’s something I’ve been wondering: Why did odometers typically read only to 100,000 miles until fairly recently? Was that the maximum cars could possibly last when the practice began? Was it marketing — “100,000 miles, need a new car”? Is it something else? Durability expectations were certainly raised when Volvo added another digit, and with good reason. Two hundred thousand miles or more now seems to be feasible for many cars, with others known for exceeding that.

The odometer limitation certainly creates lots of doubt in the market for older vehicles. 50,000, 150,000, or even 250,000 miles are possibilities for a given vehicle.

On a related note, why are dealers so committed to ensuring no owner documents are provided with a used car? Even when buying an obviously well-maintained car at a reputable dealer, all I got was a whispered, “The timing belt has been changed.”

I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Sajeev answers:

The 5-digit odometer’s longevity was likely due to multiple factors:

  • Manufacturers don’t care, as they save money deleting unnecessary parts, instead adding new features/colors and trim/styling to provide consumers a reason to buy a new car. (Optimistic angle.)
  • Manufacturers don’t care, as they willingly engaged in systematic planned obsolescence (pessimistic angle) and I wish you good luck in proving this.
  • The State of New York demanded it by 1993, so automakers finally had a reason to add the extra cost and/or recalibrate their Canadian kilometer doohickies to read a proper American mile.
  • America has a strong culture of considering vehicles over 100,000 miles on the odometer as “over the hill.” Odds are you, dear reader, disagree, but you know many that consider otherwise.

Which is pathetic, but even the open market punishes used vehicles for crossing the 100,000-mile threshold upon trade-in. Would you rather have a “low mileage” 5-digit car over a high mileage car that did the dreaded roll over?

Much like the Dow breaking 20,000, this is an arbitrary threshold with no effect on your vehicle (or portfolio). It’s not like your 401k is now worth eleventy billion dollars in the Super-Mega Bonus Zone. An abused/neglected 60,000-mile car is far worse than a loved vehicle with 120,000 miles on the clock.

Regarding your last question, ask for the vehicle’s complete CarFax and walk away if you don’t get it. (Granted, we all know how that system can be gamed.) The number of variables in a transaction are mind-numbingly complex, made easier if you can afford the monthly payment on a brand spankin’ new loss-leader subcompact car instead. But not everyone wants or can use a Nissan Versa-esque vehicle, so I always recommend a PPI if you’re buying used with any doubts.

[Image: Shutterstock user Meredith Heil]

Send your queries to sajeev@thetruthaboutcars.com. Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry…but be realistic, and use your make/model specific forums instead of TTAC for more timely advice.

Sajeev Mehta
Sajeev Mehta

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  • JaySeis JaySeis on Feb 28, 2017

    My Father used to tell the story of the "guy next door" who repoured the babbitt main bearings on his Franklin like every 1000 miles. He said "they even made a kit for that purpose". You young whippersnappers these days have it so easy.

  • La834 La834 on Apr 19, 2017

    I recall Subaru being the first to use six-digit-plus-tenths odometers, but I probably just wasn't paying attention to Volvos which I thought were boring at the time.

  • CFS I can’t believe these comments aren’t 100% in favor of CarPlay/Android Auto. They don’t add much for music and other audio that you don’t get with just a Bluetooth connection, but they make navigation so so much better. Why is it better? Because inputting the destination address is so much easier. And I don’t need to think about updating my car’s maps. Plus, I can switch between Google Maps, Waze, Apple Maps, or whatever else seems best suited for my trip. Hands-free calling features are OK, but not such a big deal for me.
  • TheEndlessEnigma I've owned a VW in the past and learned my lesson. Any kind of repair was absurdly expensive which I understand is typical of VW nowadays.
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  • 3-On-The-Tree To say your people are total monsters is an unfair statement. You can judge the Japanese government but to say the citizens are culpable or responsible is wrong. That’s like saying every Caucasian person in the U.S is responsible for slavery or the civil rights era of violence and discrimination against African Americans and are benefiting from it. That’s 79 years ago, the average Japanese citizen born during WWII has nothing to do with what happened. Even my Japanese grandmother who was living in Yokohama whose home was firebombed was just trying to survive with 3 kids and a husband fighting in the war. Just like every war the citizens suffer, I saw it in Iraq. You can’t judge the people from the misdeeds of their government, my mom was born after the war, you really think she is responsible for what happened?
  • Irvingklaws Was a must have for my wife's new car. After years of windshield mounts, trying to keep the sun off the phone, wires running across the dash, etc...it's been a welcome upgrade. Don't have it in my current (old) car, just a stock stereo with the aforementioned windshield phone mount and wires...which is fine enough for me. But if I upgrade the radio with an aftermarket unit, the first thing I'm looking for, after separate volume and tuning KNOBS, is Carplay. Note, I've yet to find an aftermarket head unit meeting these basic qualifications. The infotainment in my '17 GTI had both of these and was near perfect, I'd be happy with that unit in any car.