The last thing you want to do when your car is finally paid off is have to start thinking about a new car again -- and another five year loan. The goal is to push the day of debt renewal off as far into the future as possible -- to maximize the period of essentially free transportation ( and put the hundreds of dollars you'd otherwise be spending on a monthly payment to better uses).

There's no reason why almost any late model car or truck can't be counted on to last for 12-15 years or more -- and run reliably for well beyond 100,000 miles. Don't get suckered by the out-of-date notion that once the warranty runs out -- or six or seven years have rolled by --The End is near.

Provided they're treated decently.

Decent treatment means:

* No abuse or over-hard driving.

When you first start the vehicle, do not race the engine. Accelerate gradually until the engine (and the rest of the drivetrain) has completely warmed up; it takes about 10 minutes of normal driving, depending on the outside temperature. Most engine wear occurs at cold-start and during the first few minutes of operation. Revving a cold engine will greatly accelerate this wear and tear. If you have a truck and pull a trailer or haul heavy loads, it is especially important to take it easy until the engine's had a chance to warm up -- and the oil is circulating freely. However, do not just start the vehicle and leave it idling in the driveway for more than a couple of minutes. Doing that is also bad for the engine, because an idling engine does not heat up quickly enough to burn off raw gas an other contaminants that can dilute the oil and reduce its ability to lubricate and protect internal parts. Best policy: Get in, start the engine and drive way -- at a measured pace -- and avoid full-throttle starts or passing attempts until about 20 minutes have gone by.

* Lubricant levels/regular changes.

It is critical to routinely check the engine oil and transmission fluid to assure they're at the proper level -- and have these fluids changed (along with the filter) at least as often as recommended by the factory under "severe/heavy duty" conditions. Do not go by the "normal use" fluid/filter change intervals -- unless you live in a rural area and rarely experience stop-and-go driving, or periods of prolonged idling -- as in traffic jams. For most people, day-in, day-out driving conditions meet the factory definitions of "severe" service -- yet many people assume thatbecause they're not darg racing or otherwise obviously abusing their vehicles that they can adhere to the "normal use" recommendations. Often, the manufacturers at least tacitly endorse this false belief -- because it makes the new cars they're trying to sell seem less expensive to maintain. However, it's far less expensive over the life of a vehicle to spend an extra $30-50 annually on oil changes -- and perhaps an extra $100 every two years for a transmission flush and fluid/filter change -- than it is to have to buy a new transmission (or a new car) as a result of poor maintenance.

The "severe/heavy duty" recommended change intervals are typically half the "normal use" intervals (3 months/3,000 miles vs. six months, 6,000 miles). Check your owner's manual -- the actual time/mileage increments for your specific vehicle can be found there. This small investment will reap large rewards over the life of your vehicle.

* Pay attention to what the factory says about other maintenance items.

If the manufacturer says the timing belt (on models so equipped) should be replaced at 50,000 miles -- have it replaced at 50,000 miles. If the factory says it's essential to flush the cooling system every three years at minimum -- do it. Unless you want to pay for a new radiator (often a $500 part) as a result of the old one being ruined by degraded/contaminated antifreeze. Any car with anti-lock brakes shouldhave the entire system professionally "bled" (purged of old fluid) and refilled with new brake fluid at least every three years or so -- otherwise you risk ruining the very expensive ABS pump, rotting the brake lines from the inside, and damaging the entire system. Brake fluid attracts moisture, and moisture in the brake system is lethal. Major damage can occur before you begin to notice any trouble -- and by then it's too late.

A common mistake many new car buyers makje is failing to read their owner's manual cover to cover -- especially the chapters dealing with maintenance -- and following these recommendations to the letter. You can pay now -- or pay much more, later.

* Be kind in extreme weather.

If it's very hot -- or very cold -- outside, life is much harder on your car's engine and all its mechanical components. Any excessive demands placed on your engine in such conditions can (and usually will) come back to haunt you down the road. Would you run a marathon in 100 degree weather? For the same reason, avoid driving at high speed -- or worse, running it at full tilt from one stop light to the next -- if it's really hot (or really cold).

* Consider having auxiliary oil/transmission coolers installed -- as well as switching to synthetic lubricants.

Oil/transmission coolers lower the operating temperature of engine oil and transmission fluid -- which can greatly increase the longevity of your engine and transmission. The cost to have these parts installed will be about $200 -- a small investment given the over-the-road benefit. Ditto synthetic lubricants. Though more expensive quart for quart than oridinary motor oil and transmission fluid -- about $4-$5 per quart vs. $1.50 or so for premium quality non-synthetics -- the benefits far outweigh the small initial cash outlay. Synthetics are superior in terms of the protection they provide -- their resistance to extremes of temperature, "flow rates" (viscosity) when cold and resistance to high heat conditions/extreme service. You can also usually extend change-out intervals when using synthetics as well -- which reduces the actual cost of switching over.