Jalopy Nation? The Average Car on the Road Has Never Been Older

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Even after a year when sales of new cars increased by nearly 11% compared to 2010, thereby lowering the average age of cars on the road, the typical automobile today is ancient compared to its counterpart in the mid-’90s. In 1995, the average passenger car in operation in the U.S. was 8.4 years old, compared to 11+ years old nowadays.

These are the findings of the automotive research firm Polk, which released data showing that, as of June 2011, the average passenger car on the road was 11.1 years old, up from 11.0 as of 2010 and 10.8 in 2009. The aging of light trucks has occurred at an even swifter pace, averaging 10.4 years old in 2011, up from 10.1 in 2010 and 9.8 in 2009. Overall, all vehicles on the road today average 10.8 years old, up from 10.6 in 2010 and 9.0 as recently as 2002.

Due to a variety of factors, including improved technology allowing many models to be driven relatively hassle-free for hundreds of thousands of miles, the age of the typical car on the road has crept higher and higher since 1995. Over the last half-decade or so, though, the trend has increased at an especially fast pace. The recession played a huge role in this trend: People didn’t have the money to buy new cars, or were so freaked by the uncertainty of the economy that they decided against buying big-ticket items such as new cars. Instead of upgrading to a fresh set of wheels, many consumers made do with their old rides—and their efforts to keep them on the road means boom times for auto repair and supply shops:

“The increasing age of the vehicle fleet, together with the increasing length of ownership, offers significant business growth opportunity for the automotive aftermarket,” said Mark Seng, global aftermarket practice leader at Polk. “Dealer service departments and independent repair facilities, as well as aftermarket parts suppliers, will see increased business opportunity with customers in need of vehicle service.”

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It’s been reported that last year, business at auto repair shops was up 10.5% compared to the pre-recession year 2007.

Though it may just be positive thinking on the behalf of automakers and dealerships, the aging of the average American car is expected to level off in the near future. Perhaps something of a youth movement might even take place two or three years down the road, with the average age retreating a bit.

After 12.8 million cars were purchased in the U.S. in 2011, American drivers are expected to buy a million more cars in 2012. Polk anticipates that new auto sales will grow by roughly another million annually at least through 2015, partly because so many cars on the roads today are already so old.

But, as the Associated Press points out, all those tens of millions of new car sales won’t make a dramatic impact on the average age of U.S. vehicles—because there are nearly a quarter-billion in use at any given time.

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One factor working in the favor of increasing new car sales is that used-car prices remain quite high—potentially making the price of a new car easier to swallow by comparison. Used vehicle prices hit an all-time high last summer, and Kelley Blue Book forecasts a rise of 3% to 5% for used-car prices during the first quarter of 2012.

Automakers, meanwhile, are aggressively trying to convince today’s value-conscious drivers that now is the time to unload their old beater and upgrade to a new car. Later this year, for instance, Toyota will roll out the new Prius C, which gets 53 mpg and starts under $19,000. When used-car prices soar, and when the priciest year ever for gasoline takes place, it becomes easier and easier to make the decision to buy a new car that’s affordable and fuel efficient.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.