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Why Doesn't a Car's Model Year Match Up to the Calendar Year?

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author photo by Doug DeMuro March 2017

Hello and welcome to this week's version of Ask Doug, which is this weekly segment we do here on Oversteer where you ask Doug a question and then Doug considers answering your question briefly before spending 3 hours on Autotrader looking at used Land Cruisers.

If you'd like to get in on the action, you can. Just send me an email at OversteerDoug@gmail.com, and I will proudly read your email, perhaps in a mocking tone while I scramble to press the "Delete" button. Or maybe I'll share it here on Oversteer.

For example: I have decided this week to share an email from a reader I've named Derek, who lives in Australia. Derek may or may not be an adolescent kangaroo. Derek writes:

Hi Doug

Long time reader but first time sending in a question for this segment.

I was reading your recent article on the Mercedes M-class and got thinking about the curious practice car manufacturers in the USA have of calling cars built in a particular year the Model Year in the future. eg. The first ML320 built 9 February 1997 was the MY1998. Why not use the correct year for a particular model that reflects when it was built rather than some arbitrary date that is a year in the future.

Regards

Derek in Australia

Just so we're clear, you can be certain of the fact that Derek is from Australia because of the way he writes the date: 9 February 1997. Americans would refer to that date as "February 9, 1997," while people who work for Mercedes-Benz call it "the beginning of the end."

Anyway, the question here is, why do automakers bother with model years? Why don't they just say a car is a "1997" if it's built in 1997 and a "1998" if it's built in 1998?

Well, Derek, it's all psychological. For example, today is March 3, 2017. You're going to the dealer to buy a brand-new car, and you bring it home, and you're telling all your friends that you just picked up a nice new 2017 Ford Explorer. What a wonderful moment, right? What a celebratory occasion! You're so excited, and you're happy, and you've even gone to your local grocery store, whatever they have down in Australia, and you've picked up some balloons.

But then you tell your neighbor, Zeblot, about your new car, and Zeblot isn't impressed. This is because Zeblot just purchased his own new car: a 2018 Honda Pilot. Suddenly you and your 2017 Explorer aren't anywhere near as cool; some dude down the street (named Zeblot, of all things) already has a car that's a year newer than yours. And you just bought yours YESTERDAY!

So the automakers look for any edge possible to try and convince people that their car is the newest, and latest, and greatest, and coolest thing they can possibly imagine. And some of that edge involves playing with the model year. I'll never forget, for example, when I first started working for Porsche Cars North America in 2010, and I had a 2011 Porsche 911 as a company car. For the first few months, until it actually became 2011, people thought I was driving around in a car from the future.

Interestingly, there are rules about this whole model-year thing lest the carmakers go crazy and roll out the 2024 models next week. Here in the U.S., a car company can't say a car is from the "next" model year until January 1 of the preceding year. In other words, a car company looking to release a 2018 model would've had to wait until January 1, 2017. In Canada, the rule is even stricter: A car must be built after January 1, not merely sold after January 1, in order to qualify. So you can't build a car on December 15, 2016, and call it a 2018 model, even if you plan on selling it in 2017.

Now, Derek, I admit I have no idea what the rule is in Australia, but I suspect it's largely similar to the one in the U.S. and Canada. And while automakers occasionally squawk about getting rid of model years, it seems that people just love to discuss cars in terms of "what year they are." Especially Zeblot, that jerk, with his 2018 Honda Pilot.

Doug DeMuro is an automotive journalist who has written for many online and magazine publications. He once owned a Nissan Cube and a Ferrari 360 Modena. At the same time.

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This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Why Doesn't a Car's Model Year Match Up to the Calendar Year? - Autotrader