Recently, some varying opinions in the comment thread regarding car generations raised a very good point: Exactly which qualities distinguish a new generation of a car from merely a mid-cycle refresh?
There is no universal definition of what a vehicle generation is. While the general guidelines usually imply an entirely new platform, body, mechanics and styling, “new” cars are almost never 100 percent new. While a “full-redesign” may indeed consist of all-new sheetmetal, often times much of what lies underneath remains the same.
A face-life or mid-cycle refresh is usually classified by minor tweaks to front and rear fascias, and often trim, equipment, and powertrain changes, but the degree of visual and mechanical change varies by a large degree on a situational basis.
As stated though, there are no set in stone terms defining either of these acts. When a car update falls in the vast gray area in between is when things get fuzzy, and it becomes harder to classify what type of update it is. So, when a car receives an extensive update, but a good amount of parts are carried over, is it a facelift/mid-cycle refresh or is it a full-redesign/new generation?
For most vehicles, the distinction between facelift and new generation is fairly clear and universally agreed upon. However, throughout history there have been many cars where it’s hard to draw the line between a facelift or a new generation. I won’t even get into the days when cars received annual styling changes, which could go from minor fascia tweaks to a large amount of new sheetmetal and updated mechanic. Let me present a few of many possible cases:
Take for example the 1986-1991 and 1992-1995 Ford Taurus. Though for 1992 most of the sedan’s sheetmetal was all new and the interior was completely redesigned, most mechanical components remained unchanged, as did the doors. Additionally, wagon models were entirely the same as the 1986-1991s from the A-pillars back. It’s near universally accepted that the 1992 Taurus was a full redesign and thus the start of the second generation. However, there are some pundits who refute this, calling the 1992 Taurus merely a face-lifted version of the original.
Conversely, let’s look at the 1982-1987 and 1988-1994 Chevrolet Cavalier. Like the Taurus, 1988 wagons were unchanged from the A-pillar back, as were sedans with the exception of a new rear clip. Coupe versions, however, received almost entirely new sheetmetal and a heavily revised roofline. Despite this, the 1987 Cavalier is more generally considered a facelift instead of a second generation. Perplexed yet?
Another confusing example is the 2014-2015 Kia Sorento. Apart from updated front and rear fascias, sheetmetal itself was largely the same compared to the 2011-2013. However, underneath, the 2014 Sorento was significantly changed, with a substantially re-engineered chassis offering increased torsional rigidity, and major improvements to suspension, steering, braking, interior, and powertrain. Carried over components from 2013 was reportedly less than 20 percent, and naturally, Kia considered the 2014 Sorento as “all-new”. Despite this, most sources will cite the 2014-2015 Sorento as a substantial facelift.
Things get even trickier when a significantly refreshed car is given a new name, for example, the AMC Hornet and Concord. Versus the 1977 Hornet, the 1978 Concord featured a new front fascia, hood, fenders, bumpers, and a new rear end design, among numerous mechanical and interior upgrades. AMC marketed the Concord as all-new, though was careful to also highlight its “upscale” enhancements over the Hornet.
The Volvo 700-Series and 900-Series are a similar case. While the 1990 940 and 960 sedans still looked similar to their 740 and 760 predecessors, sheetmetal from the A-pillar back was all new, and sedans were also treated to new rooflines and redesigned trunks. Numerous other enhancements were made underneath, and 960 received updated powertrain. 900-Series wagons, predictably, were much more similar to the 700-Series, just to make things more confusing.
My own personal conclusion to this question is that it comes down primarily to styling. However, just how much styling must change to necessitate it being called a “new generation” still appears to vary on a situational basis. Maybe we need to introduce a new term to describe those updates that fall in between?