We know that our political and economic systems are built on great families. In cars, there are significant dynasties, too. Whereas some models come and go without leaving a trace, others constantly keep rejuvenating themselves.
Such is the case with the Ford Mustang, the Toyota Corolla and the Volkswagen Golf, for example. These models have spawned multiple generations over many decades. Each one is clearly part of a continuum. Each one has its unique features.
Thanks to the UK’s strong second hand market, these different model generations offer you a whole new level of choice. Now, you can not only buy the latest Corolla or the one before that. You can even go back two, three or even more generations back and find the one that best meets your needs and budget.
In this article, we’ll shine a spotlight on the topic of car generations. We’ll define the term, give you examples from some of the greatest car models of all time and provide you with information about what all of this can mean to you.
Car generations: Definitions
Manufacturers update cars all the time. They all but have to. We’re living in fast times and there is a constant hunger for novelty.
At the same time, consumers love reliability. They cherish big brands and familiar names, because these offer a sense of stability.
This is why car companies need to balance these two poles. They are forced to keep innovating, while at the same time offering drivers the products they have come to love and trust.
This is where different car generations come in
To meet these seemingly contradictory goals, manufacturers have come up with a clever strategy.
They discretely change their cars in short cycles. Almost every year, they will publish an updated version of their most popular vehicles. This new version will mostly include subtle adjustments. The headlights might look a little different, for example, and there will most likely be technical changes to the safety- and entertainment-systems.
This is called facelifting.
Then, every four to five year approximately, a model is given a more thorough workover. It will look and feel like an entirely new car. And mostly, underneath the hood, it actually is. Changes will often include a new motor, a new passenger cabin and an entirely new design. Cars can become significantly bigger or smaller, heavier or lighter, sportier or more conservative.
They can also become quite a lot more expensive, as manufacturers take them upmarket. Importantly, they will address some of the more fundamental flaws of previous models, which recent facelifts haven’t been able to solve.
These different versions of a model are called model generations.
The longest running car generations of all time
Some models only exist for a single generation. This doesn’t have to be a problem per se. Especially with some iconic models, there simply is no need to make any incisive changes. They are perfect just the way they are. Instead, manufacturers either give them a facelift from time to time. Or they let them die and focus on different models instead.
Other cars, meanwhile, just keep on going like there’s no tomorrow. Here are some of the longest running car generations of all time.
The Mustang is not the most popular car of all time. But it’s certainly the most long-lived. No other model has remained in production for almost 60 years without interruption – a proud achievement.
Because it has remained a slightly niche model for most of its run, the Mustang has only seen six model generations since it was first introduced in 1962. Its possibly most recognisable incarnation, the third generation, was in production for a full 14 years. That’s almost the length of a full lifecycle for an average car.
The Mustang is a great example for the huge differences between generations. Its first generation was really beautiful, subtle and elegant and did not feel like a sports car at all. Neither did the fourth generation, which looks almost like a family vehicle in hindsight. In contrast, the car has received a much heavier and raunchier image from the fifth generation onwards.
Ultimately, there’s a Ford Mustang for every taste and budget.
According to some, Honda was on its way out of the car market in the beginning of the 1970s. Then, almost as one last try, it published the Civic, and everything changed.
The Civic was a simple car, but it outperformed many of its competitors in key areas: price, performance, fuel efficiency and reliability. This made it one of the most popular cars of the past decades.
There are ten generations of the Honda Civic. Most of them are quite short. Apart from the first generation, which remained on sale for seven years, none of them lasted for more than three to four years. The changes the car has gone through over the course of these generations are quite incisive. Although it started out as a mini, the Civic quickly grew and conquered the subcompact market. Later incarnations have become a lot more sporty and powerful.
You could even argue that are infinitely more generations of the Civic out there than is usually acknowledged. After all, its design has been used as the basis for a slew of other Honda models. The CR-X as well as the CR-V, the Concerto as well as the Prelude, all used the Civic platform.
It speaks to the importance of maintaining that forever delicate balance between novelty and familiarity – which Honda maintained perfectly this time.
Everything about this car is unspectacular and predictable. That, it seems, is exactly what customers want from it. The Corolla has long overtaken the Beetle as the most sold car of all time. It may also be the most reliable model ever built.
Although it may not be the most exciting vehicle, the arrival of a new Corolla generation is a major event. Three of its generations have lasted almost twenty years – quite an astounding feat.
And yet, despite this sense of stability, the Corolla today looks nothing like the car that first rolled off the production line in 1966. It has become a lot bigger and some of the new models feel a lot edgier, too. Any of these is a great choice and even some of the 80s Corollas can be an excellent deal, as they’re built to last and may require very few repairs.
The curse of the first and the latest generation
Let’s think about what all of this means for you. Without any doubt, we can make some almost universal predictions about which generations are better than others:
- Generally speaking, the first generation of a model is not an ideal choice. These cars typically still have a lot of issues which need to be ironed out. Obviously, if we’re talking about a car with a long family tree, the first generation will no longer feel fresh today. Especially in terms of technology and safety, it may actually feel somewhat old. Facelifted first generation cars can be a good choice, however.
- The latest generation will conversely have all the most up to date specs on the market. However, these cars have naturally not been tested on the road a lot. Even if reviews are positive, there are as yet no long term case studies. Which means you are, in effect, a guinea pig.
First generations don’t need to be a problem. The first Ford Focus was great, for example, as was the Honda Civic we mentioned before. If you are interested in one of these, it can help to at least go for a model which was produced towards the end of the generational cycle. These cars tend to be safer and more reliable, quality-wise.
Is new ever worth it?
That’s a wholly justified question. If the latest car generation is always a risk, then why ever buy new?
The reply to this question would far exceed the scope of this article. However, we can make an observation.
New cars always come with a three year warranty – some of them even have longer ones. One of the reasons warranties are so long is to keep you from worrying about the risks of new cars. When production of the Dacia Duster was shifted to India, there were many serious issues, including a botched paint job. The warranty made sure it was Dacia who had to clean up the issue, not consumers.
There are hidden problems in used cars, too of course. Still, they may be the better choice. If you want to save money and reduce our risks, a second hand model is your best choice no matter what. If you’re having trouble with a bad credit rating, it may be your only option, too.
The 80s are always problematic
Regardless of the exact generation: Cars from the 80s are always an issue. Some of the most typical problems include inferior materials and underpowered engines, resulting in vehicles that feel cheap and drive abysmally.
Online magazine The Street names the Corvette and the Golf GTI as cars which are ‘absolutely worthless’ today. Does it make sense to still take a look at cars from the 80s? Possibly!
After all, after a while, some of the deficiencies of a car can actually become charming. The GTI may not have a lot of space, but it’s not a bad car for what it costs. And the Corvette has long become a cult classic.
If you’re interested in an 80s model, The Street recommend the Mazda Rx-7 as a pretty cool fake Porsche 924. The only reason it’s so cheap now: The follow-up generation is considered even better.
How generation changes work
Everything in between the first and current generation of a model is potentially of interest. Even with the best cars, some generations are better than others, however. How can you arrive at a choice that optimises both the quality of the car and its price?
To arrive at an answer to this important question, let’s take a look at how generation changes work.
Many experts assume that there lie an average of five years between two generations of the same car. Small cosmetic changes can be made every year. Roughly at the halfway mark, there’s usually an additional deeper facelift which also corrects bigger technical problems.
Whenever the manufacturer switches from one generation to the next, they’ll also try to push out old stock from the dealerships. In order to do this, there will be a period when the former model gets reduced in price. This is obviously a great time to buy a new car.
Unfortunately, there is a big ‘but’ here:
If things were as predictable as this, no one would buy a car
To keep you from just waiting for five years to pass, car companies are injecting an element of uncertainty into the game.
Some car generations last a lot longer, some shorter than five years. The Toyota Corolla Mk6 lasted for nineteen years, for example. Waiting it out for the seventh generation would not have been a smart move.
There is also a long list of vehicles with extremely short production runs. Unless you know exactly when a generation gets pulled, it’s going to be hard to time your purchase.
This is another vital point: Car manufacturers make it exceedingly hard for you to know when they’ll introduce a new model generation. They hide this information from the public and are extremely careful not to leak any of it too early.
Of course, you don’t need to know the exact release date. Simply keep a few online price searches running all the time and read a few industry magazines on a regular basis. Usually, you can spot a switch over at least a few months before it happens. That should give you enough time to make use of the lower prices.
Why it matters
There are several reasons why it matters to keep a close eye on these developments. If you intend to sell your car at some point in the future, a new model generation can have a severe impact on the resale value.
If you buy an older model at its regular price and the new model gets released a few months later, you loose a lot of money.
“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.”
So, you can either wait before the older model to be reduced in price. Or you can wait for the new model to be introduced and get a better resale value for it when you sell it.
A case study – the Ford Fiesta
Ford has produced the Fiesta for more than forty years and through seven model generations. None of these model cycles has lasted less than six years. The sixth and possibly most iconic one, was in production between 2009 and 2019. This makes it a great case study to analyse how redesigns can improve and change a car – and whether investing into the latest generation can be worth it.
Carbuyer compared the two editions with each other. This is what they came up with:
- The exterior design of the Fiest has received only moderate changes.
- The sixth generation may actually be more fun to drive than the new one.
- The interior of the seventh generation comes across as fresher, the sixth generation feels a bit dated here. Material quality appears to have significantly improved, with the new Fiesta finally matching the standards set by the competition.
- The seventh generation is longer than the sixth. It may not be a lot on paper, but both the leg space for back seat passengers and the trunk have become notably more spacious.
So which is better?
Carbuyer’s overall verdict:
“While we can heartily recommend the latest model to anybody looking for a brand new supermini, if you can live without having the latest styling and updated dashboard – and don’t desperately need more space for rear passengers – opting for the previous model is a safe and budget-friendly choice.”
So, ultimately, a lot comes down to taste and preferences. As we said before: When it comes to finding exactly the car you want, the choice could not be bigger, your chances of getting a great deal could not be better.