What Does a Car Model Year Really Mean?

The shifting definitions of the auto industry's model year.

2022 Ram 1500Ram

Article QuickTakes:

Car model years are the fundamental, organizational building block used by the auto industry to distinguish its vehicles as they move through the developmental process. A car or truck's model year determines available features, pricing, and the life stage of the platform on which the vehicle is built. Model years are also used to track an automobile through the recalls and updates that are part of the ownership process.

How do model years work, and where did they come from? Let's take a closer look at how the automotive industry keeps track of the millions of vehicles it builds annually.

According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), the term “model year” is defined as “the year used to designate a discrete vehicle model, irrespective of the calendar year in which the vehicle was actually produced, so long as the actual period is less than two calendar years.” NHTSA is the U.S. government department responsible for assigning Vehicle Identification Numbers (VINs), which include alphanumeric codes revealing a car’s model year, among myriad other characteristics.

Why Don't Model Years Match Calendar Years?

You might have noticed that model years don't typically sync up with the actual calendar year when an automobile is released. The reason for this disconnect dates back to the very beginnings of the auto industry when car companies were trying to target their customers—specifically, farmers who were flush with cash after having sold their summer crops. This seasonal event pushed automakers to release their latest products in the fall season, launching the new model year while the old calendar year was still in progress and syncing up nicely with the summer production schedules under which most factories operated.

This practice became cemented as time went on, resulting in situations today where a manufacturer can sometimes release a model year vehicle a full 12 months ahead of its model year on the calendar.

Platform Costs Skyrocket

Until the mid-1960s, each new model year typically brought styling changes, engine updates, and fresh features for a given vehicle. By separating these improvements across model years, automakers could build excitement about upcoming products and more easily convince buyers to trade in their older models.

Eventually, however, the cost of designing cars and trucks climbed to the point where it became untenable to introduce a significantly different edition every year. Advances in technology (that were more expensive to develop) and burgeoning emissions and safety regulations caused much of this increased cost.

As a result, model years became less important when introducing new automobiles. Instead, companies focused on “platforms,” the underpinnings of a vehicle that, in the modern era, can last up to 10 years on the market before a manufacturer introduces a major evolution. During that time, model years mark smaller developments such as tweaked engine tuning, improved fuel economy, software updates, or modest styling refreshes inside and out.

OTA Might End Model Years

Today, a model year change isn't nearly as important as it once was. Some companies, such as Tesla, are avoiding model years altogether when developing their vehicles, while others occasionally release different versions of the same vehicle for the same model year (like the RAM 1500 Classic). This more fluid approach to vehicle development reflects not just the sky-high costs associated with new car and truck platforms, but also the gradual shift toward electrification that will allow vehicles to receive new features through over-the-air (OTA) updates after they've left the factory.

This site is for educational purposes only. The third parties listed are not affiliated with Capital One and are solely responsible for their opinions, products and services. Capital One does not provide, endorse or guarantee any third-party product, service, information or recommendation listed above. The information presented in this article is believed to be accurate at the time of publication, but is subject to change. The images shown are for illustration purposes only and may not be an exact representation of the product. The material provided on this site is not intended to provide legal, investment, or financial advice or to indicate the availability or suitability of any Capital One product or service to your unique circumstances. For specific advice about your unique circumstances, you may wish to consult a qualified professional.
author photo
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.