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For years, Americans have been driving older and older cars, bringing the average age of vehicles in operation to 11.5 years at the start of this year — that’s the highest it has been since analytics company IHS Automotive started tracking the metric.

Americans continue to drive increasingly older cars partly because vehicle quality has improved, but the economic downturn played a significant role in this trend, as well. Mark Seng, global aftermarket practice leader at IHS Automotive, explained the data in a news release:

“For the five to six years following the recession, however, average age increased about five times its traditional rate, which we attribute to the nearly 40 percent drop in new vehicle sales in 2008-2009,” Seng said. Now several years beyond that point, many consumers may finally ditch cars equipped with CD players (tape players, even) and cigarette lighters for the likes of back-up cameras, multiple power outlets and other standards of newer vehicle technology. “We’re now seeing average age begin to plateau and return to its traditional rate of increase as consumers have recovered from the great recession and have begun buying new vehicles again.”

IHS projects the average vehicle age will reach 11.6 years in 2016 but won’t reach 11.7 years until 2018. If you’re among the many consumers expected to get a new or used-but-younger car, take plenty of time to consider your payment options for the purchase. If you can pay cash, that’s great, but shop around for the best deals if you need auto financing.

Having good or great credit will improve your chances at accessing a low interest rate on your auto loan, and having a significant down payment also helps keep loan costs down. To see where you stand, you can get your free credit report summary on Credit.com, and you can get updates every 30 days to track your progress as you get closer to applying for the loan. Great credit isn’t a requirement for auto financing — there are car loans for people with bad credit — but it certainly helps.

Keep in mind that being able to afford a new car is more than fitting the monthly loan payment into your budget. Consider insurance, maintenance and fuel costs, but also think about the long-term cost of the loan: A car may seem affordable if you spread the loan out over a long period of time, but you’ll end up paying a lot more in interest in the long run, and you run a greater risk of the loan outlasting the car. At the start of this year, the average new-car loan term was a record 67 months (about 5 1/2 years), according to Experian, and nearly 30% of new car loans originated in the first quarter had terms between 73 and 84 months (about 6 to 7 years).

There are a lot of perks to buying a new car, but you want to make sure you can afford it. Set a realistic budget and work to improve your credit before hitting the car lot, and you’re much more likely to come away with a car that meets your transportation and financial needs.

More on Auto Loans:

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