What 17 Numbers and Letters Can Tell You About Your Car
The VIN can tell you everything from where the car was made to what size engine it has.
A Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) is the string of 17 numbers and letters that an automobile manufacturer assigns to an individual vehicle. The VIN can reveal a number of things about a car, including its airbag type, country of origin, engine size, model year and trim level. Typically, the VIN is stamped into a plate that's mounted on the dashboard near the windshield or on the driver-side door jamb. It's also stamped on the engine's firewall.
The article "Making Sense of Your VIN" explains what each element of the VIN represents, but if you want to get a free, quick, personalized VIN readout, try the VinDecoder.net Web site. It is a search tool that can translate your VIN in a matter of seconds. You may have to deal with a few ads that surround the data, but the information is accurate and worth a look. We entered a few VINs from former Edmunds long-term test cars and found some interesting information.
First up was the 2013 Scion FR-S. There was one item that stood out. The VIN decoder shows the manufacturer is Subaru, not Scion. This is not an error. The Scion FR-S and its twin, the Subaru BRZ, are the product of a joint venture between Subaru and Toyota. Both cars are manufactured at Subaru's plant in Japan.
The 2011 Chevrolet Volt had a hidden bit of trivia in the fuel type. It erroneously says that the Volt can run on E85 ethanol in addition to gasoline. It can't and it won't any time soon.
General Motors originally intended to launch the Volt with a flex-fuel variant, but the emissions package was not ready for the first model year, according to the automaker. The E85 compatibility was apparently incorporated into the VIN data before GM decided a flex-fuel version wouldn't be ready in time for 2011. Since then, no flex-fuel version of the Volt has surfaced. It appears the plans have been scrapped.
We were curious as to what the VIN looked like on an electric vehicle so we decoded the VIN on the 2013 Tesla Model S. The information is pretty thin and goes to show that your results may vary, based on what the carmaker supplies. We might have stumped the decoder tool: It wasn't able to identify Tesla Motors as the manufacturer. It also doesn't show anything about it being an electric car.
The 2012 Fiat 500 is a reminder of just how globalized carmakers have become. Fiat is an Italian company that now owns Detroit-based Chrysler and manufactures the 500 at Chrysler's plant in Toluca, Mexico.
Notice that the 10th element in the VIN is "C." The letter represents the 2012 model year, but it could also mean 1982. Because the model year is represented by one character (letter or number) in the VIN and the VIN can only contain 17 characters, the code for model years has to be recycled every 30 years. So while one letter can represent more than one year, it should be pretty obvious whether the car is a 1982 or a 2012 — or 2042, for that matter.