Home » Why You Maybe Shouldn’t Buy A First Model-Year Car Or A Final Model-Year Car

Why You Maybe Shouldn’t Buy A First Model-Year Car Or A Final Model-Year Car

First Year Last Year Ts
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It’s pretty well established by now that buying a first model-year car is not the best idea, especially if that car isn’t based on another well-established vehicle with a proven powertrain and mechanical/electrical architecture. “By the final year of production, all the bugs will have been worked out, so I should get a final model-year car, right?” Well, not so fast.

Let’s first establish this: The “never buy the first model-year” advice is good; I could probably give you a million examples of design flaws that were changed sometime in the middle of the production run. Here are a few just off the top of my head:

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  1. Around 2005, General Motors fixed its 2.2-liter EcoTec four-cylinder engine’s timing chain lubrication problem after numerous early (first three model years) timing chain failures
  2. In 2013, Nissan replaced its quickly-degrading Leaf battery packs (first two model-years) to a new “Lizard” pack that lasts longer
  3. In 2013, Jeep fixed the issues its 2012 and 2013 Jeep Wranglers (first model years with new engine) were having with cylinder head valve guides
  4. In 2015, BMW changed its timing chain/guide design of its N20 2.0-liter engines after numerous engine failures (first three model years).
  5. In 2014, Subaru made engine changes after 2013 (first model-year) Scion FRS and Subaru BRZs valve spring failures

Here’s a quote from Consumer Reports about first model-year cars:

“…as our data has consistently shown, reliability-minded consumers would be best served by forgoing brand new vehicles in their first model year.”

It makes sense; as much research and development that automakers do before sending to customers, there are going to be some real-world conditions that the automaker will not have accounted for, and if this leads to significant failures and especially recalls, the automaker will likely fix the issue during the vehicle’s production run. Warranty repairs are expensive for automakers, after all.

But while those changes are happening something else will also be taking place: TCR

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Technical Cost Reduction

TCR is technically an internal term used at DaimlerChrysler/Chrysler Group, LLC/FCA/Stellantis/whatever the hell people are calling the company I once worked for. It stands for “technical cost reduction,” and, well, I’ll allow FCA to define it in its “Supplier Help Resources” document:

FCA cost reduction program is a partnership with the supplier to reduce the cost of components and systems through innovative ideas that include material, function, form, process, and part management. If a supplier submits their idea into GPSIS, and it meets the FCA business case criteria without Decontenting, reducing Quality or Performance, FCA has 2 teams to support supplier idea development.

The short of it is that the goal is to reduce the cost of building the car not by reducing features, and not by reducing the car’s perceived quality — the point is to reduce cost in a way that’s imperceptible. At least, that’s the theory. In reality, sometimes the cost reductions are noticeable. Oftentimes they involve removing features that manufacturers’ data shows most folks don’t actually use, or they involve reducing the gauge of certain materials, or they involve change materials that companies don’t think customers will miss.

 

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Generally, an ideal TCR, when pointed out to a customer, would result in a reply: “Oh, I don’t really care about that. The car feels the same.” But to diehards, sometimes it’s hard to look at a TCR and not be a bit disappointed just knowing that you’re getting less for your money.

Take my 2021 BMW i3. I’ve been driving a 2014 for over a year, so stepping into my 2021, some cost-saves things become obvious to me. First, the glovebox lock is no longer made of metal; it now appears to be made entirely of plastic.

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2014:

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2021:

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In addition, 2014 BMW i3s came with netting on the back of the front seats; this was a handy place to store documents. BMW removed that starting in 2015.

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2014:

Screen Shot 2024 06 05 At 7.00.28 Am

2021:

Screen Shot 2024 06 05 At 7.00.49 Am

Then there’s the Giga World interior changes. From 2014 to 2017, it looked like this:

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You can see a slight change in leather color and fabric; those aren’t the cost-saves obvious to me — it’s the armrests. Notice how they were leather before, and now they’re white leatherette:

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These are obviously small changes, and the average customer isn’t going to care that much about a seat net, armrests, or a glovebox lock, so in that way, BMW’s TCR engineers did a good job.

Still, as I’m sure many diehard enthusiasts have experienced when going from an early build car to a later one — not having a feature that you had before, or giving up on quality even a tiny bit when you’ve gotten used to the early vehicle, is a tough pill to swallow.

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With that said, I have noticed that earlier-built cars tend to have better fit and finish than later ones, though that’s more anecdotal (though it’s worth mentioning that tooling does wear out over time). With that said, despite TCR, if I had to choose between a first model-year vehicle and a final, I’d choose a final. Not only have some of the big design flaws been fixed so the automaker can avoid more costly warranty claims, but in order to remain competitive, oftentimes there are new features added in over the years, or some once-optional features becomes standard. My 2021 BMW i3S, for example, has fancy Adaptive Headlights that weren’t available on early cars, it has Apple Carplay that wasn’t available on early cars, it has a new iDrive system that early cars didn’t have, and it’s a Sport Model, which wasn’t an option before 2018.

So there’s definitely more to gain and more to avoid when you choose a final model-year vehicle over a first. TCRs, if done correctly, are things you should be able to deal with.

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John E runberg
John E runberg
8 days ago

Late to the party (and weird as hell) but can comment that for Vanagons (yeah, I said I was weird) the first year models were a pile of problems engine-wise – since the Rabbit was doing bonkers business they stuck the air cooled flat four from the last bus in the back and… hoped. In the lighter Bay Window it would eventually get driven too hard and overheat (and drop a valve seat) but in a Vanagon it was slow misery. But at least it worked. They shoved the 4 cylinder diesel in the back and you could run faster than it drove (owned one… it too longer to get to 60mpg than to buy and sell it) then, finally launched the 1.9 Wasserboxer to a flurry of corroded heads, overheating and general sadness. The 2.1 had many of the same problems (plus some new, exciting ones) as well.

On the positive side I can say that the interior materials, etc. only improved with each revision – from springy cloth seats to absolutely comfortable for hours velour ones with adjustable armrests, for example. It helped that, while sales in the US ended with 91s they were still sold in other markets for a long time afterward to didn’t get de-contented here as a result.

AceRimmer
AceRimmer
11 days ago

People say Mk7.5 GTI’s are pinnacle GTI but I disagree. I went from a 2015 Mk7 to 2019 Mk7.5 and the decontenting was blatant. Both base S trim, materials were worse, things removed like under seat storage, locked glovebox, underhood insulation, etc. It was plain piano plastic vs the cool ‘carbon-esque’ plastic. Only thing better was the infotainment screen. I’ll take 7 over 7.5 any day.

GumpertApolloGuy
GumpertApolloGuy
13 days ago

I recently bought a first year 2013 Scion FRS. It was a stupid good deal and only had 25k miles, we’ll see if this will bite me in the asd or not. If I could do it differently I’d buy a 2014+ just for the peace of mind.

Spectre6000
Spectre6000
13 days ago

I HAD NO IDEA! Early model years, sure. NBD. The decontenting and quality reductions later in the game though? I’ve been around the automotive block many, many times, and never noticed. Once seen though… Mind blown!

How does this apply to mid-cycle refreshes though? Minor drivetrain changes, trim changes, etc. Same logic, or is there any sort of attenuation?

Santiago Iglesias
Santiago Iglesias
10 days ago
Reply to  Spectre6000

For some suppliers, it’s actually written into the production contract that the piece price will decrease x% every model year. On top of that, suppliers also look for cost reductions to increase profit. This can be literally anything, including safety devices (making the metal a little thinner or using less material) as long as it can just barely meet the requirements

Jeff Morse
Jeff Morse
14 days ago

Depends on the make. I bought a 1999 Mazda Protege and it did have an emission system problem (California) crop up in the first month, but it was quickly repaired and after that it was a very reliable car. I don’t regret buying that first model year at all.

GirchyGirchy
GirchyGirchy
14 days ago

I’ve owned one of each; a 2006 Nissan Altima and a 2014 Mazda3. The Altima was a phenomenal car, sold to a coworker at 200k miles and still going strong at 230k. I’m very glad I had it rather than the new model with its CVT and other problems they seemed to have.

The Mazda’s been great so far with 135k miles on it. Not only was it a first-year car, but ours is a very low VIN count and must have come from the first or second week of production. It’s had a couple of early-production problems (front end clunks fixed under warranty, later a sticking caliper due to a rusty bracket I fixed via TSB and updated part). A carryover powertrain has probably helped.

Morgan Thomas
Morgan Thomas
15 days ago

Not necessarily first year or last year problems, but if during the model run there was an odd variant with a lot of parts specific to that version only, somehow that’s what I’ll end up with. I usually find out when I go to find a spare part and discover if it was ANY other version of the model, the part would be easy to find, but for my car/motorbike/whatever it is unobtanium. Discovered that on my Suzuki RG250WE-1, which seemed to be an ‘in between’ model, different to all the previous versions, and different to everything after since they added a powervalve to the exhaust on later versions.

Wc Jeep
Wc Jeep
15 days ago

Have owned two different first year models. Never again.

Tricky Motorsports
Tricky Motorsports
15 days ago

My first year Bronco has been terrific, I’m glad I didn’t wait.

Slow Joe Crow
Slow Joe Crow
15 days ago

Counterpoint, sometimes the last year is better. The 2016 Mazda CX-5 had an interior face-lift that freed up space in the center console and made the infotainment screen much nicer, plus in early 2017 these were discounted to make way for the late release 2017 which was less attractive.
Also my mom got a killer deal on her 2003 Acura TL because it was August and the 2004 Beak cars were on the way. Mom hated the beak, which is why she replaced it with a 2013 Accord.

Freelivin2713
Freelivin2713
15 days ago

We need more articles about RUST…
rust…rust…rust…rust…rust…RUST!
Where has the real David “Rusty” Tracy gone? (I know…gone Hollywood)

Robn
Robn
15 days ago

Jaguar Land Rover is notorious for cutting corners (as mentioned in numerous articles here about the V8 block with cylinder blanks making it a V6). Off the top of my head, here’s a “short” list of things they’ve taken away from the new Defender over the years since launching it in 2020:

  • aluminum-capped signal and wiper stalks to black plastic
  • overhead sunglasses holder to black plastic blanking plate
  • exit detection warning in door for cyclists to black plastic blank and no warning
  • soft-close rear door to regular rear door
  • click-n-go rear seats w/ usb to nothing
  • Clearsight rearview electronic display mirror to standard mirror
  • USB ports in the back seat area to black plastic blanking plates (chip shortage – retrofit when avail)
  • two key fobs on delivery to a single fob (chip shortage – retrofit when avail)
  • Heads up display unavailable
  • digital gauge cluster to standard
  • 11.4-inch touchscreen to 10-inch touchscreen on all but top trims
  • and my favorite: the removal of the second auxiliary radiator on the P300 for 2025

I’m sure there are plenty more, but that’s enough of a squeeze to feel it.

Robert Runyon
Robert Runyon
15 days ago
Reply to  Robn

All under the radar of the average consumer Ouch!!

Robn
Robn
14 days ago
Reply to  Robn

Oh, I thought of a few more:

  • locking fuel cap to non locking (US never got this but other markets initially did)
  • auto dimming passenger side mirror to non-auto dimming
  • seat detail stitching on base and back cushions to plain seat covers
Joe Morgan
Joe Morgan
15 days ago

the other thing is that even if your vehicle is just a facelift, the first year can be a pain as it might use some bits from prefacelift cars and some updated. my 1990 volvo 960 is one of the first few hundred 900 series volvos, and as such i have a great challenge every time i need parts because some bits, like the whiteblock engine, were very early in their production run while some parts (interior, bodywork etc) were carried over from the late 700s with little changes. but often stuff for the mk1 960s is very confusing to identify because they’re somewhat in the middle between the 700s and the 960 facelift that everyone thinks of

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