Are Car Model Years Going Away?

Automakers are becoming less strict about annual model naming and updates.

2020 RAM 1500RAM

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New models typically launch in August or September of the previous calendar year. As such, automakers embarked on a strategy of body styling, mechanical, and feature changes, using the term “model year” to represent a specific version of a car, truck, or SUV. They’re released every 12 months or so to help supercharge sales.

History of Model Years

Early on, the differences between one model year and the next were fairly significant, especially during the post-World War II boom years. By the time the 1970s rolled around, car development slowed to the point where major updates occurred every three to five years (with each intervening model year focused more on options and equipment rather than wholesale changes). As time passed, these “generational” changes stretched out even further, reducing the impact of individual model year upgrades.

Is it possible that model years might mean even less in the very near future? Judging by how some automakers approach their design and feature rollouts, it's clear that the once-standard annual model-year practice no longer applies across the board.

Same Model Year, Same Name, Different Car

Starting in the 2000s, some major automotive brands realized that they could generate cash by continuing to sell popular older models alongside their redesigned replacements. In effect, this created an unusual situation where two different vehicles shared the same name and model year.

One of the earliest examples was the Volkswagen City Golf, a vehicle that appeared in Canada and some other markets for 2007. The City Golf hatchback was an unusual mix of fourth-generation Golf with some fifth-generation styling (renamed the Rabbit). Both VWs shared the same model year as the latest and greatest. The City Golf sold until 2010, with a City Jetta also available that followed a similar formula.

Even more blatant was the Nissan Rogue Select. When the second generation of Rogue was redesigned for the 2014 model year, the compact SUV stuck around as a continuation of the older model badged as the “Select.” This meant that a pair of very different Rogues were simultaneously populating showrooms.

Ram did the same thing just a few years later with the Ram 1500 Classic, a carry-over into the 2019 model year of a truck that debuted nine years earlier. The “Classic” is still sold today despite the presence of a redesigned version of the full-size pickup offered alongside it.

The Nissan Rogue Select and the Ram 1500 Classic may have been kept in the mix because they had a strong sales history, and their makers merely had to keep production of the outgoing model going.

However, a car company is sometimes forced into an awkward model-year pair-up due to circumstances. This was the case with General Motors’s 2022 Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra full-size pickups, which were delayed to such a degree due to supply chain issues that the previous-generation pickups were kept on for the 2022 model year as “Limited” trims. This stop-gap solution created confusion among shoppers.

Moving Past the Calendar

Electric vehicle maker Tesla is another company that has approached the model year question differently. The automaker has shunned scheduling upgrades to vehicles along any set timeline, preferring to release software updates when ready to unlock or improve vehicle features or add new trim levels and equipment according to market conditions.

As the era of the software-defined vehicle continues to unfold, more manufacturers may take a similar approach to the model year question.

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Benjamin Hunting
Benjamin Hunting is a writer and podcast host who contributes to a number of newspapers, automotive magazines, and online publications. More than a decade into his career, he enjoys keeping the shiny side up during track days and always has one too many classic vehicle projects partially disassembled in his garage at any given time. Remember, if it's not leaking, it's probably empty.