There's nothing quite like the joy of a new (or a nearly new) car. Everything works exactly as it should, the paint shines, the motor purrs, the interior is clean and has that wonderful new-car smell, and if anything should go wrong, the dealer will fix it under warranty.

On the other side of the coin, there's also nothing quite like the grind (so to speak) of trying to keep an old clunker going. It's noisy, it's not fun to drive, things rattle, it doesn't look nice, and it always seems like there's yet another expensive repair just around the corner.

The inevitability of aging
Cars in general are more reliable than ever, but they all tend to develop expensive problems as they get older. My 8-year-old, always-babied minivan recently started leaking all sorts of vital fluids, and my mechanic just called to let me know that the repairs would probably cost a thousand dollars or so.

And unfortunately, that's typical. Eventually, every car reaches the stage where alternators or power steering pumps or tie rods or CV joints fail and need replacement, at a few hundred bucks (or more) a pop. And after a few of these -- plus maybe getting stranded once or twice -- owners start asking themselves, "How much longer can I put up with this?"

But at the same time, that clunker is probably paid for. And nobody likes going back to making car payments.

Getting the most from your money
Clearly, for those of us focused on getting the most from our money, the trick is to maximize the time between that last car payment and the clunker stage. Whether you're buying a new car or a gently used one, you're (I hope) thinking of it as a long-term relationship. Here are some ways to keep that relationship as long and happy as possible:

  • Start with a reliable model. While vehicles from Toyota (NYSE:TM) and Honda (NYSE:HMC) are perennial leaders in Consumer Reports' reliability ratings, and belong on any shopper's list, there are other good offerings out there. General Motors (NYSE:GM), for instance, has made huge strides in recent years, and although the company's lineup is still a mixed bag, its best cars are worthy of any buyer's consideration. Also, American-made cars are often cheaper to fix than imports. Check reliability ratings and estimates of long-term maintenance costs as you draw up your shopping list, and take them seriously.
  • Choose a car you like. At the same time, don't buy a car just because it's at the top of the reliability lists. You'll be more motivated to take good care of a car that you enjoy driving, and that fits your needs well. Even a boring-but-reliable transportation appliance that tops all the "quality" lists won't be as reliable if you don't like it and don't take good care of it.
  • Do all the maintenance on time, and fix any problems right away. The owner's manual will list the recommended service intervals. Put them in your work calendar and make sure you get them done on time. After your car's warranty expires, find a good local mechanic and stick with the schedule -- and get any leaks, odd noises, or vibrations checked out right away. Small expenditures up front can save you from much larger ones later on -- and from getting stranded.
  • Keep the car clean and have it detailed every few months. Detailing, a careful professional super-cleaning of your car, not only helps make the car seem like new for much longer, but it also makes problems more apparent. People are more likely to shrug and overlook rattles and vibrations in cars that look and feel tired and worn-out. If the car still seems new, any problems seem more jarring -- and you're more likely to notice and attend to them. To help keep the detail job fresh, drive through your local car wash every couple of weeks.

One last thought: If you have a garage, avoid the temptation of letting clutter crowd out your car. Keeping your car in the garage will help it stay cleaner, protect it from the damaging effects of sunlight and weather, and keep it away from many of the things -- stray garbage cans, kids on bicycles, careless neighbors -- that tend to add the little scratches and dents that make a car look old.