Personalizing gives used vehicles that new-ride feel

Driving a shiny, new and powerful vehicle can be quite a thrill. Fortunately, you don’t have to go into debt buying a new car or truck to get that feeling.

More Americans are keeping their cars longer, thanks in part to the economy and partly because improved quality has extended the usable life span of many makes and models. In fact, the median age of cars in the U.S. is older than nine years, according to a 2008 study by automotive consultants R.L. Polk & Co. For trucks, the median age is around seven years.

With people holding on to their used vehicles longer, demand is growing for cost-effective, exciting ways to personalize automobiles.

“Customization is a great way to put your personal stamp on a vehicle, and get that new-car excitement without an expensive car payment,” says Steve Meade, who hosts Two Guys Garage on SPEED as “Willie B.” “It’s possible to find ways to customize virtually any make and model to suit your personal sense of style.”

Meade suggests a few cost-effective customizations to consider. Some you’ll be able to do yourself, others may require the help of a professional:

* Upholstery covers – An easy, do-it-yourself customization, seat covers are a great way to dress up the interior of your car and you don’t have to wait until your seats are trashed to install them. Want a more up-scale look than the beige cloth seats you currently have? Slip on some luxurious leather covers. Hankering for a look that says you’re a fun person? Hop online and search for seat covers featuring your favorite sports team or cartoon character.

* Floor mats – Since mats get a lot of wear and tear, replacing them can impart a fresh look to any vehicle and protect the carpet at the same time. Just as with seat covers, you’ll find a wide variety of styles, including basic mats that match your car’s interior, mats with sports logos and cartoon characters, and even animal-print themed ones.

* Audio – Unless you paid a mint for upgraded audio when you bought your vehicle new, your audio components are probably pretty basic: a radio and maybe a single-disc CD player. Most people will need a professional to install upgraded audio. The good news is, you can find plenty of audio options at good prices virtually everywhere, from your local discount store to big box electronics stores.

* Lights – There’s no law that says you have to live with the boring tail lights or head lamps the factory installed in your truck or car. Depending on the make and model of your vehicle, you can find custom lamp assemblies for the front and rear of your auto. Trucks get a punch of style when you add strands of lights to the running boards. Some custom light jobs you’ll be able to do yourself, but others will require a professional installer.

* Accessories – Roof racks, nose bras, specialty antennas, grille covers – the possibilities are seemingly endless when it comes to accessories. You can switch out door lock knobs, spiff up side mirrors, tag on tail hitch covers, and dress up with decals.

You don’t need a new car payment or the makeover budget of a TV show to customize your ride. A few personal touches and a moderate investment can help you upgrade your reliable used vehicle into something that’s a thrill to drive again.