Call car repair shops and each one has another story about the economy's impact on their business.
Dennis Swann of Swann's Automotive Repair in Modesto said he's seeing more people forgo repairs for things they see as unnecessary, such as air conditioning. Dennis Slewoo of USA Auto Service, also in Modesto, said he's had to schedule more repairs in stages, rather than doing them all at once.
Both men see the same standard: Consumers, stung by high gas prices and a downbeat economy, are clamping down on their automotive expenses. That comes either in the form of delaying needed repairs or making repairs to avoid buying a new vehicle.
The figures bear that out. The median age of passenger cars on American roads last year was 9.2 years, nearly a year older than the 8.3 years seen in 2001, according to the automotive consulting firm R.L. Polk & Co. The median age of light trucks in 2007 increased to 7.1 years, a year older than the 6.1 seen in 2001.
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There are several reasons America's fleet of 248 million vehicles is aging, said Chuck Parker, publisher of Automotive Digest, an online trade publication.
First, cars last longer, he said. Engines are better built and are more efficient. More people are buying used cars because they are more sound than in the past.
Then there's the economy.
"Buying a vehicle because it looks good is less and less of a reason," Parker said. "People are looking for utility, for cars to last. People are fighting to keep their kids in school and pay their mortgage."
He estimates that there will be about 15 million new vehicles sold in the United States this year, 1 million fewer than last year.
The benefactors of the trend "are the local independent Joes, the car repair shops on the street," Parker said.
In Modesto, car dealers have reported a drop in sales over the past year that mirrors the decline in housing.
Local auto repair shops, such as Swann's, benefit from drivers who don't want to buy something new.
"It's a tighter market right now,
and everyone is looking to tighten their belts," said Swann, a second- generation repair shop owner. "I'm looking to tighten my belt, too."
Swann said he's heard of two-vehicle families that have parked one car because of high gas prices. Swann said he's putting off buying a new vehicle because he doesn't want to make payments.
Swann and Slewoo said drivers are dodging repairs -- in some cases vital -- because they're tight on money.
At USA Auto Service, Slewoo said a customer brought his car in for a brake inspection Tuesday.
Slewoo found the brakes were nearly metal on metal and needed immediate replacement.
"He asked me if we could push it back two or three weeks," Slewoo said. "With his income, he said, he has to save his money.
"Two or three years ago, this conversation wouldn't happen."
Experts say there is no easy equation for deciding the cost of yet another repair versus payments on a new car. It's simply a calculation each driver at some point must make.
"The depreciation of a vehicle, even with high gas prices, is the highest cost of operating a vehicle," said Tom Webb, chief economist for Atlanta-based Manheim, the world's largest wholesale vehicle auction firm.
Slewoo said he runs a program in his shop that tells drivers how much it will cost them to keep driving an older car.
"You cannot get away with missing those oil changes and brake jobs," Slewoo said. "And it's usually cheaper to maintain a vehicle than replace a vehicle."