UPDATE 02/27/23: Details related to supply chain issues, as well as specific 2023 and 2024 model year information, have been added to this story.
You don’t have to travel at the speed of light to see 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 How else can you explain how we always send you a magazine that is at least one month out of date forward of the month of receipt?
It’s not just magazines that seem to be bending the space-time continuum. Vehicle model years often differ from the official calendar year. Your calendar may show the year 2023, but somehow, new-car dealerships across the country are starting to stock 2024-model cars and trucks. What gives?
Blame Franklin D. Roosevelt. Originally, car model years followed calendar years. However, that practice changed in the mid-1930s, after FDR signed an executive order requiring automakers to release their new vehicles in the fall of the preceding calendar year “as a means of regulating employment in the [automotive] industry.” Auto assembly line workers are typically idler during a new model changeover, and the president reasoned that if their idle period were to occur earlier in the fall, auto workers would be able to hold down jobs through the holiday season and thus have more money. can spend
Some 90 years later, the tradition of releasing new vehicles in the last months of the preceding calendar year remains common. However, this custom 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 2024 model-year vehicle can be sold starting January 2, 2023. Conversely, manufacturers can introduce and release a new vehicle for sale as late as December 31 of the corresponding calendar year, so a 2024 model year vehicle can be introduced up to and including December 31, 2024. Because of this wide latitude, manufacturers can often bring vehicles well before—and after—the traditional pre-holiday period.
Two examples from the recent past are the 2016 Kia Sorento and the 2016 Mazda CX-9. While both vehicles carried the same model year designation, the two midsize crossover SUVs were released at very different times. In Kia’s case, the Korean company started selling its new 2016 Sorento in January 2015. At the time, a Kia spokesperson explained: “Model year designations may be assigned due to the vehicle’s larger lifecycle plan.” The spokesperson added that “marketing, fuel economy and homologation reasons” also play into this decision, and regulatory requirements can change from model year to model year.
Meanwhile, Mazda chose to release its then-new 2016 CX-9 in the middle of the 2016 calendar year—nearly a year and a half after its Kia rival. At the time, a Mazda spokesperson noted to us that several factors went into the company’s decision to label the late-release CX-9 as a 2016 model and not a 2017 model, including Mazda’s desire to avoid potential consumer confusion to avoid that may result from the sale of a next-model year vehicle in the current calendar year.
Like Kia’s spokesperson, however, Mazda’s acknowledged that marketing also played a role in the CX-9’s model year designation: “Based on [model year] 2016 numbers, the CX-9 [had] the best fuel economy of any non-hybrid midsize three-row [SUV] in its class.” Had Mazda marketed the CX-9 as a 2017 model year vehicle, it might have lost that bragging claim. Although the Mazda CX-9 retained its fuel economy crown among its non-hybrid peers for the 2017 -model year, the brand had no way of knowing this at the time of the SUV’s debut.
More recently, supply chain issues — largely related to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as other factors — have forced automakers to introduce new model-year vehicles at earlier and later dates. For example, Honda began selling the 2022 model year Odyssey minivan early in the 2021 calendar year due to a “supplier issue.”
As a company spokesperson shared with us at the time, “The timing of model year introductions varies from model to model for a number of reasons, some of which are beyond our control. We’ve moved the introduction forward. [of] the model year 2022 Odyssey primarily due to the discontinuation of the HondaVac feature in the Odyssey Elite at the end of the 2021 model year based on a supplier issue.
The vehicle’s model year indicates the 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 accept today’s 17-character VIN, the tenth of which indicates the model year. AP indicates the 2023 model year—or the 1993 model year—and R means 2024.
Before the rise of the VIN, manufacturers relied on their own internal serial numbers to mark specific vehicle information. This convention gave automakers the freedom to determine a vehicle’s model year at will. Example: With a backlog of unsold cars in 1951, Kaiser simply added a handful of new trim pieces and changed the serial numbers of remaining 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 why a vehicle’s model year often doesn’t sync with today’s calendar year are fourfold: historical precedent, regulatory rules, marketing considerations and, as recently, supply chain issues. However, time travel has nothing to do with it – unless you happened upon a DeLorean in the mid-1950s.
This story was originally published on November 11, 2016.
Despite their shared last name, Greg Fink is not related to Ed “Big Daddy” Roth’s infamous Rat Fink. However, both Finks are known for their love of cars, car culture and – oddly enough – monogrammed one-piece bathing suits. Greg’s career in the media industry stretches back over a decade. His previous experience includes working as an editor at publications such as US News & World Report, The Huffington Post, Motor1.comand MotorTrend.