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Buying a Car: Should I Avoid the First Model Year?

Commonly held car shopping advice says that it’s not wise to buy the first model year of any car, truck, or SUV. But has this long-standing rule finally run itself out of warranty?

Is it really a mistake to purchase a brand new or completely updated car, truck, or SUV?

The thinking goes that any new vehicle still has bugs to work out. These could be minor design flaws, like the quirky placement of some dashboard switches. Or they could be something significant and potentially pricey to fix, like a troublesome engine or transmission.

Many car shoppers believe it’s wiser to wait a little longer and avoid getting stuck with an unreliable car. Yet, simply because the vehicle you’re considering is new doesn’t mean it’s going to be nothing but trouble.

There are valuable resources and smart ways to research a vehicle in its first model year, and we will help guide you along the way.

Is Dependability a Factor for a First Model Year Car?

One reason many shoppers avoid a model’s first year is that dependability remains unknown. There’s always the chance a brand new vehicle could quickly turn into a giant headache down the road.

Recalls are also not uncommon in the automotive world. While most recalls can be easily fixed and don’t require significant servicing, others could be far more serious.

But let’s remember one key thing: This savvy shopping advice applies to all new cars, along with used models, too. So when searching for any new or used vehicle, it’s essential to have all your resources available.

Used vehicles with ongoing recalls — particularly something missed or ignored by the car’s previous owner — can be far riskier than hypothetical question marks hanging over a first-model-year car with a blank track record for reliability.

RELATED STORIES: Why You Should Pay Attention to Car Model Cycles

How Automakers Get Car Model Year Reliability Data

There may not be as much unknown as you think. Automakers spend thousands of hours on the road testing cars over millions of miles before releasing them for sale. Cars get repeatedly tested at over 12,000 feet in elevation. They’re tested at temperatures well below zero. And they’re tested in the extreme desert heat. In addition, test drivers try to break vehicles to simulate problems owners may experience. So it’s unlikely that a first-year model will develop problems an automaker hasn’t already seen — and corrected.

Data on the topic tends to support this conclusion. J.D. Power’s Vehicle Dependability Study often ranks first-year models at or near the top of their segments for 3-year dependability. However, on average, the last few Vehicle Dependability studies prove that first-year models don’t fare any better or worse than their longer-running rivals.

The conclusion: While first-year cars offer uncertain reliability, that doesn’t mean they’re going to be subpar.

Cloud Updates for First Model Year Cars

Perhaps the best argument for skipping a first-year model for a car is that drivers who choose such a vehicle may miss out on improvements that come later. An automaker may realize a gear lever feels better with a different knob and tightened shift action, for example. Or a missed feature may be quickly added after the first model year.

Shoppers who quickly spring for a first-year model will miss out on these changes — and they’ll miss out on any later special editions, as well. However, for some drivers, missing the occasional improvement is a small price to pay for having the latest and greatest new model.

Luckily, most newer model cars can get cloud updates. This means that things like the infotainment system and navigation can get updated remotely. In addition, updates can improve the performance of things like sensors related to active safety features and driving aids, in applicable cars. 

Recommendations

With such significant advancements in automotive reliability over the years, it’s hard to say first-year models perform any better or worse than cars in later model years. But at the very least, the data show that the first-year models are not any worse than their tenured predecessors.

However, if you plan to buy a first model year car, don’t forget to research the vehicle and any manufacturer before signing any sales contract. Making sure that the car manufacturer is reliable might be more of a question than if the car itself is reliable.

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Read Related Stories About Buying a Car:

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated since it was originally published. Nick Kurczewski contributed to this report.

Renee Valdes
Renee Valdes is an author and editor with Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book. She edits and writes stories about vehicles, including advice on how to buy and sell cars in an ever-changing world. Valdes also edits and authors stories about the ins and outs of car insurance from a consumer’s perspective. When she is not editing or penning the latest automobile advice, Valdes is enjoying photography,... Read More

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