How to Make Your Car Last 300,000 Miles: Cristian’s Story

Want to squeeze more mileage out of an older vehicle? While not every car is built to last beyond 200,000 miles, some models are known to endure with proper care. This list in particular includes mostly Toyota and Honda models, but also a Ford F-150.

Of course it’s nice to hear about cars and trucks that can last that long, but what about the ones that actually have? I caught up with one of our interns, Cristian Hera, who answered some questions about his Corolla, which has already passed the 300,000 mile mark. He shared some tips of what to look for in a used vehicle, how to take care of it as it ages, what kind of repairs he’s done and expects to do, how long he expects it to last, and other neat facts about his cherished daily driver.

About Cristian’s Car

What do you drive?

1995 Toyota Corolla DX Station Wagon, 1.8L 7A-FE, 5-speed manual. It was made in Japan (most were made in the US).

What drew you to it?

I was looking for a car, my first car, and this one belonged to my girlfriend’s family. They were looking to get rid of it.  It had a clutch that was slipping so bad to the point where it was almost undriveable, as well as 263k miles, and they decided to just junk it. When my girlfriend told me that her mom was looking to sell it to a junkyard I said, “Wait! I need a car. Can I buy it? And if so, how much?”

At that time, all I knew about the car was that it was a “weird looking Toyota” and that it had a manual transmission, and that’s all that mattered to me. I’ve always loved Toyotas and I’ve always preferred manual transmissions. I knew nothing about cars at the time, and this one basically taught me everything I know today. But I did know one thing: old small Toyotas are cheap and reliable. So I was ready to spend all the savings I had on this car.

I then get a text back from my girlfriend saying, “She said if you pay for the clutch to get fixed you can just have it.” My eyes opened up wide and… that’s how it all started! Back then, I was in college in NYC, so I sent the money for the repairs. And when I got back from college on spring break, the car was waiting for me, ready to be registered and insured. That car also made me like station wagons more than ever, and taught me how simple older cars actually are to work on. I discovered the rarity of this car and found my new passion: fixing and upgrading cars!

How long have you owned it?

I bought it in March 2015, so 3 years and 7 months.

Are you passionate about it?

I love it. I never want to get rid of it.

What’s the exact mileage on it?

Currently, it has 311,720 miles on the body and engine, and approximately 233,000 miles on the transmission. The original transmission still works, it’s just a bit worn out, so I swapped it.  I plan on rebuilding it myself to learn more about manual transmissions.

How many miles were on it when you bought it?

I bought it with 263,353 miles. It was pretty neglected. It had a saggy and bouncy suspension, needed brakes all around, ball joints, oil pan gasket, and all fluids except for the oil were old, dirty, and way overdue.

Did it have any major repairs done before you owned it?

Rear brake lines were replaced at some point in the past because they had rusted too much. Also, the alternator would be the next biggest one I am aware of, which on that car is a 10-15 minute job. But a failed alternator did leave the previous owner stranded.

Any major repairs since you’ve owned it?

The clutch needed to be replaced when I bought it—that’s why the previous owner was looking to sell it. I’ve also replaced all four motor mounts, which was fairly involved, as well as the whole suspension due to the excessive rust buildup. Replacing the transmission doesn’t necessarily count because the original one was still fine, but swapping it for a better-working one was a matter of personal preference.

Any repairs done twice or more?

I had to do ball joints twice, outer tie rods twice, front brakes twice, and I had to do the starter twice. I had bought cheap parts just to get me by (not recommended). Other than that, no repairs were done twice.

Any major repairs looming?

The biggest repair I’m currently working on is fixing the rocker panels since they’ve completely rotted away. There is minimal rust underneath it, but the rockers have suffered severely from New England winter roads, and the car has spent its whole life in New England.

How often do you drive it?

Every single day. It’s my daily and my only car. I currently drive, on average, 300 miles per week. I’ve put almost 50,000 miles on it since I bought it. Keep in mind, it sat for about a total of 9 months shortly after I bought it, because I was going to college in NYC. I then transferred to a college in MA and started dailying the car.

How many miles are you hoping to get out of it?

It has never had big issues (engine or transmission failing), and it is not known for such issues. So as long as I take care of it, it should keep on going—hopefully forever.

Cristian’s Tips to Make Your Car Last

Any tips to keep the car running in good condition?

  • Stick to shorter intervals:

The higher the mileage, the shorter you want the intervals. Fluids will get dirtier faster and wearables may wear out faster, especially things such as spark plugs. I change my oil and filter religiously every 3,000 miles (owner’s manual says 7,500 miles). For all other fluids, I cut the original interval in half. Maybe I’m just crazy, but it seems to work!

Also, with such high mileage, the engine may benefit from slightly thicker oil than what it calls for. If the engine burns oil, 10w-30 or even 10w-40 (what I use), may help more rather than 5w-30 (what it actually calls for). If the engine does not burn oil though, do not switch to thicker oil. Stick with the recommended viscosity.

  • Do preventative maintenance

Definitely do not ignore broken parts. Ignoring broken parts can only cause more damage. The key is preventative maintenance to avoid getting to the point of big repairs. For instance: Don’t ignore worn out suspension parts—they’ll eat up your tires and guess what you’re in for after you fix the suspension? New tires. That could have easily been avoided.

  • Be aware of common problems

Always. The top problem on my car is alternator failure. That already happened and alternator was replaced with an OE part. Other problems include oil consumption with high mileage (definitely the case for me), and clear coat peeling off (my trunk hatch is peeling like crazy, but weirdly the rest of the car is perfect. I don’t get it, but oh well).

  • Use quality parts

Avoid cheap parts at all costs. I’ve been low on money before and have had to buy cheap parts. It happens. But even though it got me by, I then replaced the cheap parts with quality parts as soon as I could. Cheap parts will fail fast (cheap ball joints lasted me two years, and cheap brakes lasted me one year). If you really have to, buy the cheap part, but do avoid it, if possible.

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Are there different concerns that come with older vehicles?

Yes. You do have to be aware of oil consumption and worn out parts that previous owners may have ignored, as well as parts that need replacement due to their age. Old cars tend to burn oil, which is normal, but don’t let it get low! The previous owner might have ignored some maintenance, such as wheel bearings, timing belt, motor mounts, certain seals and gaskets, etc. So be aware of those and change them before it’s too late. A new car will not have any of those issues because there is no “previous owner” and there is no “unknown history.” But isn’t the “unknown” the best part about a used car? In my opinion, it gives it a certain character, whether it be good or bad, that new cars just don’t have.

What’s a deal breaker on a used vehicle with that much mileage (263,353 miles)?

Engine and transmission aren’t a problem. Those I can replace and swap with other ones. However, if there is any rot on the frame or the body of the car, that’s a deal breaker for me. Rebuilding parts of the frame or even patching small holes is a nightmare. Also, once it starts to rust, it will never stop. The most you can do is slow down the process.

Is rust an issue for you? Do you take any steps for prevention?

Yes. Big issue, but not as big as it could be. The unibody and the front/rear subframes are okay (although I did have to patch one rust spot on the front subframe). However, the rocker panels are far gone. They have rotted away due to the road salt. I do plan on fixing that by cutting the old ones off (or whatever is left of them) and welding new metal in. I didn’t get to it this summer, so it’ll have to wait until next summer.

Do you drive differently or more cautiously?

No. I drive it as I would drive any other car. Maybe I go too hard on it sometimes by driving it more aggressively than it was made for, but it doesn’t mind the high revs at all. The upgraded suspension and wider tires make it handle incredibly well, and the 5-speed manual brings the little 1.8L 100hp engine to life.

100% brand new front end components with slight customizations make it a very stable car on the road, great handling, and lots of fun to drive!

[Also], the original version of that engine was not only used in the Corolla—Toyota had also made a modified versions of it to be used in performance applications, the 4A engine (Celica, MR2, MR2 Supercharged, etc.). The 1.8L Corolla engine (7A) stems from the same block as the 1.6L (4A), but  bored out to have a larger internal volume. That “performance” oriented engine block then received an “economy” head/camshafts for the Corollas for better fuel economy, thus making them long-lasting engines.

As for the transmission, the Corollas received the same transmission as, not only the base model Celicas, but also the MR2, which makes this whole drivetrain combination overbuilt (in a good way) for this generation Corolla.

In 10 words or less, how would you answer the question, “How can you make your car last 300,000 miles?”

Change your fluids often. Replace parts before it’s too late.

Do you have any other tips not covered above?

Love your car, and it will love you. If you give it the maintenance it deserves, unless it’s a truly bad design and the car has severe flaws to begin with (there are plenty of those out there), there is no reason it shouldn’t last. Don’t treat it like a beater, but don’t treat it like a show car either. Have some fun with it! Preventative maintenance is key, but also, you have to pick the right car. Not all cars are built for 300,000-400,000 miles—especially not new ones.

Also, be prepared to replace expensive parts. No matter how reliable a car is, some expensive parts simply wear out and you must replace them. Doing the work yourself will not only save you tons of money, but it will also give you a feeling of success because you were able to fix something and make it work better. And when you do perform repairs, always have a back-up plan. Stuff can easily go wrong, so have another mode of transportation available while you fix your broken car.

One other big tip is: take care of the rust as soon as possible! Do not let rust build up. It will destroy the car. No matter where it is, fix it before it’s too late. My rotted out rocker panels are staring to eat into the rear control arm bracket reinforcements, and that’s not good. I am fixing that before this winter hits.

Quick, Fun Facts

  • First Modification: The day after I bought the car I installed new front speakers. I bought the speakers before I even had the car. I just knew it needed better speakers. Priorities people, priorities.
  • First Repair: Had to change out the original starter a few months after I bought it. I knew nothing about cars back then, but refused to pay hundreds of dollars for a mechanic to do something that to me seemed do-able at home. With my dad’s help and a couple YouTube Videos (especially the 1A Auto channel), we replaced the starter in a few hours. I can now change it in 20 minutes should I need to.
  • Fuel Economy: Best fuel economy I’ve ever gotten was 38 mpg (it was not all highway) average on one whole tank. Worst fuel economy was 28 mpg average, when my front calipers were sticking.
  • Car’s Limitations: None. Well, it won’t go off-road or climb a mountain. Yes, people sometimes ask me “Would you take it across the country?” or “Will it make it that far?” or “How’s the car? Still going?” And I give them a weird look and respond “Yeah? Of course. I don’t see why not.”

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3 thoughts to “How to Make Your Car Last 300,000 Miles: Cristian’s Story”

  1. Cristian, I’m proud of your courage and determination!
    My work vehicle is an ’89 Plymouth Grand Voyager. I love it! I can slide a 4×8′ sheet on the floor and close the hatch! (I got rid of back seats) I’m in central WI, so she’s rusty! Had a mechanic replace rusted brake line recently.Every summer I add another piece of custom steel to lower body which I have formed at Custom Steel Inc. They do good work. 4 yrs. ago 3.0 engine froze up. I found a salvage yard replacement, had it installed, runs great! (leaks a little oil) It owes me nothing. And, I know it like the back of my hand!
    The spare tire holder was attached to bottom of body, rusted out. Can’t find a good quality replacement. Any ideas?

    1. Thank you! Nice to know that you’re trying to still keep it going!
      I would try and find a spare tire holder from a different vehicle (whether it be the same car or not) that will hold the same size tire, and try and replace your rusted one with that one. That’s the best suggestion i can come up with.

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