Advice from Intellichoice: The Evolution of a Vehicle

Many models have been for sale for a long time; in fact, some seem to be kept around because the nameplate is an iconic and positive image for the brand. Vehicles like the Honda Accord, Toyota 4Runner, Volkswagen Beetle and Dodge Grand Caravan are great examples of this. People remember and associate those models with the companies that build them. No need to say you own a Honda Civic—the very name imparts the Honda brand association. Manufacturers have sometimes struggled with naming vehicle. The Taurus, for instance, spent a couple of years as the Ford Five Hundred. The what? It didn't fly with the public and back came the Taurus name in short order. When Lincoln began launching its new lineup, even it had a hard time remembering which vehicle was which: MKX, MKS, MKT, MKZ…. Vehicles that the younger car-buying generation probably doesn't remember have been resurrected, the Dodge Dart being the most recent example. Though nothing like the original model that bore the name, the advantage is still clear: people hear Dart and think Dodge. They recognize it. It’s already familiar, which hopefully equates to more rapid public acceptance. The ultimate expression of this is, of course, sales.

For other models, however, there has been nearly uninterrupted production for 10, 20, even 40 years under the same badge—though the vehicle itself may have changed drastically over that time. At the most basic level, vehicle manufacturers can make several types of changes to models, from minor refreshes to major redesigns, from platform and class changes to pricing revisions. The impetus for these changes may be strategic, even if that means leaving the vehicle nearly untouched for long periods of time.

Major redesigns occur variably, as one would expect. It's very rare that a major redesign occurs after four years, much less a shorter interval. Five or six years is seen as average. Generally speaking, Korean manufacturers have the shortest intervals, European the longest. Then again, one of the oldest designs is that of the Ranger, which remained basically unchanged from 1998 to its retirement in 2012. Platform changes occur at the same or longer intervals, naturally. This is a grayer area, as one could argue the Ranger's platform never changed since its debut in 1982, though it saw changes in its engineering and wheelbase over the years. The Subaru Legacy/Outback's platform, for example, has never changed since its introduction, though it has seen wheelbase and interior volume increases over the last 22 years.

A vehicle can undergo a complete exterior (and interior) redesign while retaining the same platform and wheelbase. It's safe to say that when a wheelbase changes—and certainly when a platform changes—the manufacturer completely redesigns the look of the vehicle. At these times of major change, what happens under the hood? It depends. New engines and transmissions are often introduced with a redesign, but occasionally they carry over—and sometimes new drivetrains appear during a model cycle. Usually, a platform change requires a new drivetrain because of synergies between corporations. This can get tricky, and here's an example of the potential complexities: The new-platform Dodge Durango sports one new engine and one carryover engine, both Chrysler-sourced, along with a new transmission from Mercedes-Benz.

Along with the Durango, we've highlighted a few other vehicles that are excellent examples of the evolution of a vehicle. Why is all of this important? Because as you shop for a new or used vehicle, this information will affect which model year you consider. On our new car pricing pages we tell you what the last change for a vehicle was and when the next change is expected. You can often get a better deal during the last months of a current but long-in-tooth design, or you can wait for the next generation of the model and benefit from all the advantages—or suffer from the disadvantages—that might come with it. Knowledge is power; Choose Your Car Wisely.

  1.  Ford Explorer – The Explorer represented a significant turning point in SUV popularity.  Designed to replace the smaller Bronco II, it helped catapult SUVs from their niche status to one of wider acceptance and later on, demand from consumers seeking the off-road and towing capabilities of a truck in a more family friendly package. However, in 2011 Ford dramatically changed the Explorer, switching it from a body-on-frame platform to a unibody platform, which is typically used on cars and crossovers. Along with major changes to its engine options, the Ford Explorer lost some off-road and towing capability, but its fuel economy increased 15/21 to 17/25 (about a 17% improvement in fuel efficiency) and it received a larger interior as well.
  2. Subaru Legacy – The Legacy is the sedan version of the Outback, but up to 2009 it was the same size on the inside as the smaller Subaru Impreza. In 2010, Subaru redesigned the Legacy and it moved from the compact car class (105 total cubic feet of interior space) to mid-size (118 cubic feet). The icing on the cake? The base price went down and fuel economy went up compared to the 2009 version.
  3. Honda Accord – While the Explorer and Legacy had dramatic changes from one year to the next, other vehicles have had a much slower evolution. With each generation of the Accord, Honda keeps making it just a wee bit bigger, while styling enhancements have been fairly conservative. In 1993 the Accord was a (large) compact at 107 cubic feet, and in 1998 the Accord moved to mid-size at 116 cubic feet. Over the last 15 years the Accord has grown to 121 cubic feet. The next generation Accord is set to appear in 2013.
  4. Toyota RAV4 – When the RAV4 first came out it was truly a compact crossover, before crossovers were even in vogue. However, in 2006 Toyota redesigned the RAV4 and stretched it by an astounding 15 inches in length and five inches in width, along with a slight increase in height. This allowed for the option of a third-row seat, something once found only on the largest SUVs.
  5. Dodge Durango – The Durango, based on the Dakota truck platform, had been a longstanding traditional mid-size SUV. Like the Explorer, the Durango had its truck/SUV underpinnings swapped for a car-based (and dare we say, much more attractive) unibody platform in 2012.
  6. Toyota Prius – Even though the Prius has not been around for a long time, it has evolved rather radically. The second-generation Prius was released in 2004, increasing in size from a compact to a mid-size car and changing from a sedan bodystyle to the current hatchback design. As well, additional models in the line-up have been added: the larger Prius v wagon, based on the original Prius, and the smaller Prius c hatchback, based on a separate platform.
  7. Nissan Sentra – In 2000 the Sentra moved from the subcompact to compact class. In 2007 the Sentra landed in the competitive mid-size class, the culmination of a rare progression of two class changes for a model.
  8. Toyota Land Cruiser – This could be considered the proverbial "granddaddy" of iconic nameplates. Historically, the Land Cruiser has changed comparatively little over the course of its long history. Unlike our previous examples, the Land Cruiser is truly remarkable because the chief evolution comes from its price. In 1983, the two-door version of the Land Cruiser was priced at just under $11,000, but the 2013 model is priced at almost $78,000. As a result, it has the distinction of having the largest increase in price of any model over the last 30 years.