How To Read An Odometer [A Complete Guide]

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Owning a vehicle requires maintenance as well as monitoring certain parts of the car. The odometer is an important gauge to monitor because it lets you know how many miles a vehicle has traveled in its lifetime. Reading an odometer is fairly straightforward, but how to access the right information can sometimes be confusing if you have a newer vehicle with plenty of bells and whistles, including a digital gauge cluster. We’ve researched where to locate the odometer in your vehicle and how to correctly read what it is telling you so you can use this tool to stay on top of your maintenance schedule.

To read an odometer, look for the small rectangle usually containing five or six numbers. It is typically located near the speedometer. If your vehicle is newer, it may be digital. If your vehicle is older or less luxurious, it will be a physical, mechanical set of numbers. Once located, simply make a note of the currently displayed number. This is the number of miles the car has traveled in its life.

Now that you’ve found the odometer and written down the current reading, you probably have more questions about this little gadget. Please keep reading below as we delve into how odometers work, why they are important, and how accurate they really are to provide your vehicle’s mileage.

Dashboard, odometer ,Car speedometer and counter with dark mode ,How To Read An Odometer [A Complete Guide]

How Does A Mechanical Odometer Work? 

Car odometer

Mechanical odometers are set up to track the tires’ rotations. They are able to track the distance traveled based on the number of rotations tracked. These older-style odometers have been in vehicles for generations, and almost all work the same. Each car manufacturer does calculations based on the vehicle’s model to figure out how many rotations are required for a mile to have been traveled. The odometer is set to tick up one number each time the odometer tracks the specific number of rotations decided upon.

Why Is The Odometer Important?

An odometer is important because it essentially tells you how old your vehicle is and how much it has been used. If you own a 2015 Corolla in the year 2020 and the odometer says 100,000 miles, you know the car has been driven about 20,000 miles per year, which is above average. Milage determines a lot of the value of a vehicle because as a car is used, the parts start to get worn and need replacing. This is why a vehicle with over 200,000 miles is often worth a fraction of what it cost new.

With an odometer, you do not have to guess how much a vehicle has been driven. You can look at the odometer and see exactly how far it has gone since it was first built.

Can An Odometer Be Wrong?

Absolutely, an odometer’s readings can be off. There are ways to check and see if your odometer is working properly. The simplest way would be to use a measuring device to measure the distance of a mile. Then drive your vehicle slowly down the same path and see if the odometer changes by the time you reach the end of the mile. Your odometer can change a few feet before or after the mile marker. This may seem like a small deal, but if you drive 50,000 miles with the odometer inaccurately measuring, it will add up over time and show you a wrong number.

How Accurate Are Digital Odometers?

Odometer showing 99999 miles on its gauge

Digital odometers are now more common than ever. For one, they are cheaper to install than traditional, mechanical ones; this makes them ideal. By going digital, you can also implement plenty of new features into them, such as more trips.

With this technology also comes more advanced tracking systems. Each car manufacturer is different, and technology is always improving. Some systems now utilize a GPS to track the vehicle’s milage, while others track different vehicle aspects to get the most accurate number possible. Having a digital odometer opens up the possibility of more accurate tracking, more features, and a better visual experience through the display.

Can You Roll Back An Odometer?

Unfortunately, rolling back an odometer is a common practice for dishonest people. Mechanical odometers have historically been easier to roll back. They involve some work to learn how to bypass the security system, but people do roll them back. People have even discovered how to roll back digital odometers, though it is usually a much harder process because of the more advanced security features.

The sad reality is you need to be aware that any vehicle can fall victim to this sort of tampering, so you should always be on the lookout for it.

Why Do People Roll Back Odometers?

The answer is because it makes a vehicle seem more valuable than it really is. As we previously discussed, the higher the mileage on a vehicle, the less a car is worth. Therefore, dishonest people will roll their odometers back and attempt to sell a vehicle for more than it is worth.

Luckily, this practice is illegal. So if you purchase a vehicle from a person or dealership and find out later that the odometer has been rolled back, the law is on your side. Some used car dealers may not even realize they are selling you a car with inaccurate mileage, so if you purchase it and find out later the miles have been rolled back, they may give you a refund. After all, ethical dealerships do not want to take advantage of their customers and sell them a car based on lies. 

How Can You Tell If The Odometer Has Been Rolled Back?

A close up photo of an odometer

One of the best ways to check for odometer fraud is to look at a CARFAX report or something similar. You want to see the history of the vehicle with owners, milage, dates, etc. An obvious sign of fraud would be if you noticed the vehicle has 170,000 miles in 2018 and only 70,000 miles in 2020. This would show they rolled back the odometer’s number one in order to sell the vehicle for more money. You can also look for scratches, crooked numbers, or other similar signs of physical tampering around the odometer. This may be another sign it has been messed with.


Dashboard, odometer ,Car speedometer and counter with dark mode ,How To Read An Odometer [A Complete Guide]

All in all, an odometer is one of the most important parts of a vehicle, not because it is required for the car to move but because it keeps track of the vehicle’s health in a broad sense. All you have to do is look at the number, and you can quickly tell how old the vehicle is and how hard it has been driven. It is important to make sure your odometer is accurate and has not been tampered with so you can ensure your vehicle remains at the highest quality.

Interested in checking out more information on milage? Take a look at this article: “What’s a Good Mileage for a Used Car? [12k Miles Rule Explained].”

Want to learn more about the gauges in a vehicle? Read this article: “What are the Gauges in a Car?

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