Cars

America’s Next Top Model Year, or: Why New-Car Model Years Aren’t in Sync with the Calendar

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You don’t need to travel at the speed of light to witness time travel. In fact, all you need is a subscription to Car and Driver to see the theory at work. How else can you explain the way we always send you a magazine dated at least one month ahead of the month of receipt?

It’s not just magazines that appear to bend the space-time continuum. Vehicle model years frequently differ from the official calendar year. Your calendar may display the year 2016, but somehow new-car dealerships across the country are already stocked with 2017-model cars and trucks. What gives?

Blame Franklin D. Roosevelt. Originally, automobile model years tracked calendar years. However, that practice changed in the mid-1930s, after FDR signed an executive order that dictated automakers release their new vehicles in the fall of the preceding calendar year “as a means of facilitating regularization of employment in the [automotive] industry.” Auto assembly-line workers are typically idled during a new-model changeover, and the president reasoned that if their idle period were to happen earlier in the fall, autoworkers would be able to maintain employment through the holiday season and would thus be able to spend more.

Some 80 years later, the tradition of releasing new vehicles in the final months of the preceding calendar year remains common. This custom, however, is by no means set in stone. Under Environmental Protection Agency rules, manufacturers can introduce a next-model-year vehicle for public sale as early as January 2 of the preceding calendar year—for example, a 2018-model-year vehicle can be sold starting on January 2, 2017. Conversely, manufacturers can introduce and release a new vehicle for sale as late as December 31 of the corresponding calendar year, so a 2018-model-year vehicle could be introduced up to and including December 31, 2018. Due to this wide latitude, manufacturers often bring out vehicles well before—and after—the traditional pre-holiday period.

2017 Kia Sorento SXL

Two recent examples are the 2016 Kia Sorento and the 2016 Mazda CX-9. While both all-new vehicles wear the same model-year designation, the two mid-size crossover SUVs were released at very different times. In Kia’s case, the Korean company began selling its new 2016 Sorento in January 2015. Kia spokesman James Hope explained: “Model-year designations may be assigned because of the vehicle’s larger life-cycle plan.” He added that “marketing, fuel economy, and homologation reasons” are also at play in this decision, and regulatory requirements that may change from model year to model year.

2016 Mazda CX-9 Signature AWD

Meanwhile, Mazda chose to release its all-new 2016 CX-9 in the middle of the 2016 calendar year—nearly a year and a half after its Kia competitor. Mazda spokesman Jacob Brown noted that several factors went into the company’s decision to label the late-release CX-9 a 2016 model and not a 2017, including Mazda’s desire to avoid potential consumer confusion that can come from selling a next-model-year vehicle in the current calendar year.

Like Kia’s Hope, though, Brown acknowledged that marketing also played a role in the CX-9’s model-year designation. “Based on [model year] 2016 numbers, the CX-9 has the best fuel economy of any non-hybrid mid-size three-row [SUV] in its class,” he said. With a number of new or substantially updated competitors coming to market for the 2017 model year, it’s possible Mazda’s brag-worthy claim may not hold true come 2017.

Denoting a vehicle’s model year is its Vehicle Identification Number, or VIN. In the early years after VINs were introduced in 1954, they lacked any standardization. It wasn’t until 1981 that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration required all vehicles sold in the United States to adopt today’s 17-character VIN, the tenth digit of which designates the model year. A G indicates the 2016 model year—or the 1986 model year—and H means 2017.

1952 Kaiser Ad-04

Before the ascension of the VIN, manufacturers relied on their own internal serial numbers for marking specific vehicle information. This convention allowed automakers the freedom to determine a vehicle’s model year at will. Case in point: Faced with a backlog of unsold cars in 1951, Kaiser simply added a handful of new trim pieces and changed the serial numbers of leftover 1951 models to sell the cars as new ’52s. The company did the same thing two years later, renumbering unsold 1953 cars as 1954 models.

Ultimately, the reasons a vehicle’s model year often fails to sync with today’s calendar year are threefold: historical precedent, regulatory rules, and marketing considerations. Time travel, however, has nothing to do with it—unless you happened upon a De Lorean in the mid-1950s.

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