Which is worse, money-wise: Laying out big money for a brand-new car - or pouring money into an old car to keep the thing gimping along another year?

The answer is frequently - either.

Or both.

The smart move is to take good care of the car you already have. Avoid the new car payment - and the constant drain of "little things" that keep going wrong with an older car. Here are some tips to help your current car last forever - or at least as long as possible:

* Clutch and transmission -

When you first start the car in the morning, put the transmission in neutral, let the clutch out and allow the car to idle for 30 seconds or so before you drive off. This will get the gear lube inside the transmission circulating (automatics do this automatically whenever the engine is on), which will make shifting easier as well as reduce wear and tear.

When you're ready to roll, engage the clutch gently and progressively - don't ride it or abruptly "dump" it. When you shift to the next gear, engage the clutch fully (pedal to the floor) then gently and gradually ease the shifter into the next forward gear completely before releasing the clutch.

Being gentle is especially important when the car is cold - and for the first 15 minutes or so of driving.

Every 30,000 miles or so, change the gearbox lube - even if the owner's manual says you can go twice that long between changes. (That's marketing BS intended to make you think the car is "inexpensive to maintain" - which is true, if you don't care about the thing lasting as long as it otherwise might.)

Properly driven - and properly cared for - a clutch can last 100,000-plus miles, easily. And a transmission can outlive the car.

If your car has an automatic transmission, regular fluid/filter changes - at least as often as specified by the manufacturer- will help assure long life. Adding an accessory transmission cooler - which can be done for under $150 - is another inexpensive way to get the most out of an automatic.

* Engine -

If you live in part of the country that has harsh winters, invest in a block heater. This is a simple, plug-in device that keeps the engine (and engine oil) above freezing when the car sits overnight - making cold-starts (where much wear and tear occurs) much less harsh than they otherwise would be.

Use synthetic oil - and a high-quality filter. The cost of synthetic is about twice the cost per quart of high-quality non-synthetic oil, but your engine will get much better cold-start and high-heat protection, which could add years to its service life. Base your changeout intervals on the "severe" or "heavy duty" time/mileage intervals listed in your owner's manual - not the "normal" time/mileage intervals.

And obviously - don't beat on the thing. You don't have to become a left-lane dawdling Bob Dole-like febe. Just try to avoid full-throttle runs and constant high-speed/high-load driving.

* Driveline & Chassis -

Never let brake fluid stay the same for more than three years - especially if the car has ABS. Regular flushing/replacement of the fluid will preserve components such as (expensive) calipers and ABS pumps - as well as the steel brake lines themselves, which are vulnerable to internal corrosion resulting from contaminated old brake fluid. Same with the cooling system; radiators and water pumps - and the service charge to replace them - can amount to hundreds of dollars. Spare yourself a premature and costly failure by regularly having the entire system flushed and filled with fresh coolant at least every 3-4 years.

If you own a 4WD or AWD vehicle, don't forget to change out the gear lube in the transfer case/axles at least every 3-4 years, too

* Other stuff -

Run your AC for 5-10 minutes at least once a month during the winter months. This circulates lubricating oil inside the system, which keeps seals from deteriorating - and not-cheap refrigerant leaks from happening.

Use name-brand, high-quality gas. The additive packages - which help prevent fuel system problems - are typically better than the budget, no-name-brand stuff. Avoid buying gas from out-of-the-way stations that don't do a lot of business. The fuel may have been sitting (and degrading) in the (probably rusty) underground storage tanks for months.

Finally, just drive smoothly. You can significantly cut down on wear and tear by doing things like timing your speed so as to reach red lights without having to come to a full stop - and anticipating stops so you can slow gradually instead of having to jam on the brake/downshift. Try to keep your speed constant - and reasonably moderate.

Doing this can even be kind of fun. And if you can keep your car out of the shop (and yourself out of the new car dealer's showroom) for longer, all the better.