At auto show's opening day, folks think about upgrading their wheels

At the auto show , Sam Ellison and Sam Ellison Jr., 5, try a convertible on for size. The choices were a welcome break in winter. APRIL SAUL / Staff
At the auto show , Sam Ellison and Sam Ellison Jr., 5, try a convertible on for size. The choices were a welcome break in winter. APRIL SAUL / Staff
Posted: February 10, 2014

PHILADELPHIA When their son was born in 1998, Joan and Michael Richey bought a Toyota 4Runner to have room for the baby.

"Now, he's 15. It's time to upgrade," Joan Richey said Saturday, opening day of the Philadelphia Auto Show. "It's still going strong, but it's time"; the 4Runner has 160,000 miles on it.

The Richeys were visiting the auto show for the first time in five or six years with the goal of zeroing in on what they will buy. They have narrowed their choice down to three sport-utility vehicles: the Toyota Highlander, the Hyundai Santa Fe, and the Nissan Pathfinder.

They now have two teenage boys - with lots of friends - to drive around, Michael Richey said.

The auto show, at the Convention Center through next Sunday, is sponsored by the Automobile Dealers Association of Greater Philadelphia. The group uses the event to connect with potential car buyers and expects 250,000 people to attend this year.

By 2 p.m. Saturday, 15,000 people had visited, 5 percent ahead of last year's pace, said Kevin Mazzucola, executive director of the dealers group.

Among the show's highlights are opportunities to test-drive vehicles from Toyota and Jeep - indoors, though Joan Richey bypassed that chance, not wanting to wait in line.

The Richeys, residents of Philadelphia's Torresdale neighborhood, are far from unusual in keeping their current vehicle for more than a decade. The average age of U.S. passenger vehicles last year was 11.4 years, a record high, according to Polk, an automotive information provider in Southfield, Mich.

Sales of cars and light trucks have recovered significantly from the depths reached in 2009, when Americans bought just 10.4 million vehicles.

Locally, the number of vehicles sold bottomed at 260,000 in 2009 and is expected to reach 380,000 this year, Mazzucola said.

Nationally, the 15.6 million vehicles bought last year remained well below the levels of 17 million-plus in 2000 and 2001 and more than 16 million from 2002 through 2007.

The drop in the number of new cars sold - especially from 2008 through 2011 - means the average age of cars has gone up.

Why are drivers keeping their cars longer? Visitors to the auto show gave two reasons: either that cars are built to last longer, or that people can't afford them - not because car prices have gone up, but because incomes haven't.

Gregory Jones, of Bear, Del., said he isn't convinced people are keeping cars longer because they are more durable.

"I think they don't have the money," said Jones, who has a 2003 Ford Windstar with 140,000 miles on it and a 2006 Volvo XC90 with 170,000 miles on it.

He's not planning to buy anytime soon. "I just like seeing the new cars, thinking about what I would buy when my kids are older," he said.

Others also were thinking about the future.

Terry and Laura Johnson, of Woodbury, have three vehicles, including an 11-year-old Chevrolet S-10 Crew Cab pickup, which they might replace a year from now.

"I love it. That's why we've had it for so long," Laura Johnson said.

They came to the show to check out the 2015 GMC Canyon, another pickup truck, which will be available come fall.

"If I like it here," she said, "I'll wait."

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