Buying a Used Car: Is the Last Model Year Best for Reliability?
If you're interested in buying a used car, you might hear friends or family members tell you to never buy a make from the model's first year -- before the automaker has ironed out all the issues. Instead, people suggest to choose one from the last model year, ensuring that it's built with all the earlier problems already solved. Is there any truth to this? We'll explain.
Why the Last Year?
Before we answer the question, it's important to understand exactly why some people think the last model year is the best for buying a used car. Most people think that automakers change things each and every year, which suggests that the final model year will be the best since it's the one with the most improvements.
What kind of things are supposedly improved? Of course, newer cars tend to have more features and equipment than older models, but most people also think that newer models will have early issues solved. For instance, if there was an engine or transmission issue with a car made from 2003 to 2008, someone might suggest buying a 2008 model; by then, the automaker likely knew about the issue and took steps to solve it.
Is It True?
Should you really buy from the last model year to avoid these problems? Our answer: not always.
In some cases, there's no doubt that the general thinking behind buying later-year models is true. An automaker typically sees a problem developing early in a car's life cycle and takes steps later in the life cycle to correct its flaws. As an example, the 2007 Jaguar XK uses an automatic up/down antenna, whereas most cars offer invisible antennae so that the part isn't destroyed in a car wash. After 2007, Jaguar wised up and changed its antenna so future model years could avoid this issue.
In other cases, the general thinking surrounding later-year models isn't true. We can think of two specific situations where you're unlikely to benefit by buying the last model year. The first is a situation where an automaker makes corrections earlier than the last model year. In that case, buying from the last model year won't help you any more than buying from the second-to-last model year, for example. Instead, you'll only end up paying more to get a slightly newer car. Another situation is that the automaker doesn't find out about a problem until well after the car has left the market -- a factor that's especially true in cars that don't develop problems until 100,000 miles or beyond. In that case, buying a last-year car won't help.
How Do You Know?
How do you know if opting for the last model year is the best bet when you're buying a used car? Unfortunately, since every car is different, there's no easy way to tell. We suggest doing some thorough research to find out for sure: Visit vehicle-specific forums, ask a mechanic and talk to other owners of the car that you're considering. If you have any doubts, the last model year is likely a safer bet than earlier years, but given that there are no certainties when it comes to used cars, we'd still suggest that you get a mechanical inspection before signing the papers.