Car Buying

Buying a Car: Why You Should Pay Attention to Model Cycles

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author photo by Doug DeMuro May 2015

If you're thinking about buying a car, you should be paying attention to automotive model cycles, redesigns and face-lifts. While this may seem a little too "car geek" to you, we promise it's a good idea. It can save you money, help you get a better deal, and ensure that you get the best possible value when buying your next vehicle. How so? We've got all the answers here. But first, let's take a quick look at exactly what the terms model cycle, redesign and face-lift mean.

Some Definitions

In general, new cars are fully redesigned every four to six years. Occasionally, the model cycle for a specific car or truck will last more than six years. In between redesigns, every three years or so, cars are given a face-lift to help keep them looking fresh. This is what's called the automotive "model cycle," and it exists, without fail, for virtually every single car company.

So what exactly is a redesign and a face-lift? Think of it this way: A face-lift is a subtle or minor update designed to keep a car looking fresh and modern. Face-lifts often include updated headlights, new bumpers, new wheel designs, new paint colors and occasionally some new features or tech gadgets. If a car were a house, a face-lift would be akin to remodeling your kitchen or landscaping your yard.

And a redesign? That's a completely new car from the ground up. Think new styling, a new chassis, new suspension, new brakes, new features, a new interior and, almost always, a new engine. Sometimes models are also even given new names when they're redesigned, such as when the Jeep Liberty became the Jeep Cherokee. Continuing the house analogy, a redesign could be compared to building an all-new house.

Why Do You Care?

So you get the whole redesign and face-lift thing, and you understand the automotive model cycle, but who cares? What difference does it make when you're buying a car?

It actually can make a lot of difference. In fact, understanding when a car is about to be updated, or when it has just been updated, can play a huge role in how much you pay for your vehicle. Armed with the right knowledge, you can save thousands of dollars -- or spend thousands extra when you didn't need to. This knowledge can also keep you from buying an outdated car or ensure that you correctly decide to wait a little longer for a brand-new one.

Saving Money

For a good example of how you can save money by understanding automotive model cycles, consider the Honda Pilot, which is all-new for the 2016 model year. Before its latest update, the Pilot hadn't been fully redesigned since 2008, which makes it one of the oldest midsize SUVs on the market. The result is that the old Pilot models should cost much less than the new one, and Honda dealers will be much more willing to offer discounts on the outgoing model. Later, as the 2015 and 2016 models become used cars, the newer, fresher design will command a higher price even on the used car market.

As a result, shoppers looking for a good deal might want to look for a car or truck that's about to be updated. Likewise, drivers who weren't aware that a specific vehicle is about to be redesigned might overpay simply because they didn't know about the all-new version.

Resale values are another good reason to pay attention to model cycles. While a car's price usually doesn't change much following a redesign, a new model tends to hold its value a lot better than an outgoing version. As an example, consider the Ford Fusion, which was redesigned for the 2013 model year. While the base-level Fusion's price stayed roughly the same between 2012 and 2013, used 2012 Fusion models are available for an average price of around $15,300, which is a far cry from the $19,400 average price of 2013 models.

The reason for this price jump is that the latest body style is almost always more desirable than the outgoing version, so it will hold its value better. If you had known in 2012 that the Fusion was about to be redesigned, you could have waited for the new version and dramatically improved your resale value in the process.

High Tech Differences

For a good example of potential technological differences between model cycles, you'll want to consider the Nissan Maxima. Like the Honda Pilot, the Maxima is also new for the 2016 model year, and like the Pilot, the Maxima hasn't been updated in several years (in this case, since 2009).

As a result, the previous version of the Maxima leaves a lot of equipment to be desired. For example, only the new model offers an LCD gauge cluster, automatic pre-collision braking, a forward-collision warning system, adaptive cruise control, rear cross-traffic alert, blind spot alert and more. If you're into technology and you want those features, you'll have no choice but to wait for the new model -- something you wouldn't know if you weren't paying attention to model cycles and redesigns.

Our Advice

When you're looking for a new car, don't just look at statistics and pricing. Also be sure to read reviews and ask around in order to figure out if a car is about to be redesigned, face-lifted or heavily updated -- or if it just went through a major redesign or face-lift. One way to get a quick check on what's coming is to read about or attend major domestic auto shows like the ones in Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Miami or New York. Learning a car's model cycle and redesign timetables could save you money, keep you from spending too much, and ensure that you get the best possible combination of features and pricing.

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.
Buying a Car: Why You Should Pay Attention to Model Cycles - Autotrader