DETROIT ? That clunker in America's driveway has reached a record old age, but there are signs that people may be growing confident enough in the economy to get a whiff of that fresh car scent very soon.
The average age of a car or truck in the U.S. hit a record 10.8 years last year as job security and other economic worries kept many people from making big-ticket purchases such as a new car.
That's up from the old record of 10.6 years in 2010, and it and continues a trend that dates to 1995, when the average age of a car was 8.4 years, according to a study of state vehicle registration data by the based Polk automotive research firm.
However, Polk analyst Mark Seng says that a rebound in sales last year and expected growth for the next couple of years will likely lower the average age of cars as a whole in America. The aging of the American auto fleet has been a big boon for repair shops and companies that sell replacement auto parts.
In 2011, auto sales rebounded a bit to 12.8 million vehicles, especially in November and December, when sales were unusually strong. Last year, U.S. sales totaled 11.6 million. Many analysts expect this year to be better than 2011, anywhere from 13.5 million to more than 14 million vehicles. Even 14 million is still below what industry analysts consider a normal sales rate of close to 15 million per year, and far lower than the U.S. sales peak of 17 million sales in 2005.
Polk also says the number of vehicles in the U.S. has been falling since 2008, but that trend reversed itself last year. In 2010, there were 240 million cars and trucks registered in the U.S. That grew slightly to 240.5 million last year, the company said.
The aging vehicle trend has held down U.S. auto sales since 2009, when they hit a 30-year low of 10.4 million cars and trucks. That keeps auto companies and parts makers from hiring in great numbers, and that helps to hold unemployment at relatively high levels. Last month, the unemployment rate fell to 8.5 percent ? still high, but the lowest level in three years.
Government estimates show Americans spent roughly $40 billion more on new cars and trucks in 2011 than in 2009. Based on annualized figures from the first quarter of 2011, new-car spending totaled $206 billion, or 1.3 percent of the gross domestic product, Commerce Department data shows. That compares with $166 billion in 2009, about 1.2 percent of the country's economy.
Polk said the average age of a car in the U.S. last year was 11.1 years, while the average truck was 10.4 years old.
In 2010, the average age of a car was 11 and the average truck was 10.1 years old.