Your Car’s Mileage Isn’t a Perfect Way to Measure Wear

Looking at buying a used car, the first question we usually have is about the car’s mileage. For most of us, we recognize the value of a car’s mileage, but we aren’t always confident why. We use the number on the odometer to explain how far the car has traveled, and it gives us a pretty good idea of what the car has been through. While it is one of the more common factors that we care about when buying a used car, so much so that it can greatly affect the car’s value, but it isn’t always the most accurate way to measure how much wear a car has experienced when it comes to car buying.

Wear and tear

Plenty of your car’s structural components can wear with time and weather, but the biggest strain on your car’s mechanical and electric components is usually driving. This is why the mileage on the odometer is important, and while most people prefer lower mileage cars, we like to see models that can make it 200,000 miles or more.

No matter how many miles a car has, it also doesn’t explain what happened during those miles. Some drivers like to drive casually along, while others like to push their cars. The only sure-fire way to test your car is to have a full inspection, which is what you should do before buying any used car anyways.

A car's odometer showing 100,000 miles.
An automobile odometer with 100000 miles shown | Universal Education/Universal Images Group, Getty Images

Sitting in traffic

When you are sitting in traffic, your car typically remains on. Whether you are stopped for twenty minutes or two hours, our car engines continue to run, and there are several other mechanical and electric strains that the car’s go through while they idle. As you sit in traffic, your car odometer doesn’t change, meaning your vehicle can be running for hours without it being reflected in the mileage.

Evening traffic leaving Los Angeles on 405 freeway North at 5pm |In Pictures Ltd./Corbis, Getty Images

How new tech features help

One new feature that we’ve been seeing more and more is the automatic start-stop function. This allows the car’s mechanical components to whir down or turn off while idling at a stoplight or in traffic, essentially when your car has stopped moving for several minutes. This technology is far from perfect, however, and there are a lot of reasons that people don’t like it.

Whether we like the start-stop feature or not, it helps reduce mechanical wear on our cars, at least in theory. That means when we are sitting in traffic, we don’t have to worry about turning our cars on and off just to give the mechanical components a break.

The engine ignition start/stop button of a Volkswagen XL1 plug-in diesel-electric hybrid automobile
The start/stop ignition button for a Volkswagen XL1 | Adam Berry/Getty Images

Getting Stuck in Traffic Costs More Than You Think

Regardless, the mileage on the car is the only measurable way that we can gauge its ware. Getting an inspection and being aware of the car’s potential problems is important to make sure you get a car that’s in good condition. It’s also just as important to remember that there is more to mileage than meets the eye.