As you may have already noticed, automakers tend to completely redesign their model lines every five to seven years. You may have also noticed that, in general, the import companies often have an advantage over the domestics when it comes to keeping their product lines fresh. They do this by not only redesigning their models more often, but by making truly substantial updates during a product cycle. For instance, the BMW 3 Series saw its last major redesign in 1999, but the company has continued to introduce either new body styles (coupe, convertible and wagon), new drivetrain options (more powerful engines and all-wheel drive) or new high-performance trims (M3) every year since 1999. This means that while the 3 Series is heading into its fifth year of the current (E46) generation, there's been something exciting happening to this model line on a regular basis. In contrast, the Chevrolet Cavalier has remained relatively unchanged since 1995 and isn't likely to receive a full redesign until 2004.
Whether due to philosophy or economics (or maybe it's a philosophy dictated by economics), the domestic brands just can't match the imports in terms of model line freshening. The Big Three will often stretch their product cycles out over a greater number of years while also offering fewer meaningful updates during a given cycle. I can only speculate on how much this lack of fresh product may be contributing to the domestic brands' shrinking market share. However, as part of an attempt to inject life into aging models, I've noticed a recent upswing in what I refer to as "special" versions of existing cars and trucks.
To classify as a "special" model, in my mind, the vehicle in question must meet a few basic requirements:
A. It must be produced in limited numbers.
B. It must not be an ongoing official trim, meaning it should only be available for one year (or two years, max).
C. It provides little, if any, functional advantage over the "non-special" version.
Using these guidelines, I've identified quite a few 2002 and 2003 model lines that offer a "special" version of what is an otherwise not-so-special nameplate. While far from an exhaustive list, some examples include the following:
2002 Audi ALMS (American Le Mans Series) Commemorative Edition TT Coupe
2003 Buick Park Avenue Ultra
2002 Chevrolet Camaro 35th Anniversary Edition
2003 Chevrolet Corvette 50th Anniversary Edition
2002 Chrysler 300M Special
2003 Ford Mustang Mach 1
2002 Ford Thunderbird Neiman-Marcus Edition
2002 Honda Accord SE
2002 Jaguar XKR 100
2002 Lincoln Navigator Limited Edition
2002 Mercury Cougar XR
2003 Pontiac Bonneville G/XP
2002 Pontiac Grand Prix 40th Anniversary
2002 Volkswagen GTI 337
2002 Volvo S80 75th Anniversary Edition
The above list is telling on several fronts. First, there are vastly more domestic offerings than import models. Second, most of the vehicles in this list are aging nameplates in dire need of a redesign. Finally, many of these vehicles feature cosmetic alterations only, especially if you consider larger wheels or "special paint" a visual rather than functional upgrade. There are, of course, exceptions. That Neiman-Marcus Edition of the Thunderbird was on a brand-new first-year model and sold out in less than two hours (it took somewhat longer for those "early 'Birders" to actually get their "special" Thunderbirds). And in the case of the Mustang Mach 1, Bonneville G/XP, Volkswagen GTI 337 and 300M Special, these vehicles do offer increased performance over the regular versions.
Obviously, if a model's sales have suffered and a redesign is still a year or more out, slapping on some new wheels, different interior trim and slightly revised bodywork is a relatively cheap method of getting press coverage and, hopefully, moving some iron that would otherwise sit dormant on dealer lots.
Does this mean you should avoid "special" models altogether? Not at all. As a former 2001 Ford Mustang Bullitt owner, I can testify to the fact that, despite the aging Fox platform, it's possible to teach an old design new tricks with the proper engine and suspension tweaks. And the 2003 Mach 1, with 300-plus horsepower and a shaker hood scoop, looks to be an even more capable and interesting machine. Here's an example where the "special" model is clearly superior to the more mainstream version.
But when considering these "special" versions, my advice is to consider the larger picture. If the 2002 Honda Accord or Lincoln Navigator is about to be redesigned, it's probably wiser to wait for an all-new model than to buy a slightly tweaked has-been. And if the nameplate is about to be retired completely (à la Camaro or Cougar), don't let those "Last Chance to Buy a Legend" ads suck you in with thoughts of long-term investment potential. They could just as easily tout, "Finally, It's Being Killed! If You Want to Buy Now and Wait 25 Years, It Might Be Worth More Money than You Spent, not Counting for Inflation!" On truly disappointing efforts, such as the 50th Anniversary Corvette (Hey Chevy, way to celebrate America's oldest sportscar turning 50. Special paint and variable shock absorbers. Woo-hoo.) I wouldn't buy unless you really wanted the vehicle anyway.
There's nothing wrong with manufacturers practicing some old-fashioned marketing when it comes to selling cars. They've been doing it for decades. Anyone remember the 1978 "King Cobra" Mustang II? No additional performance, but a really cool snake decal on the hood. And for the person who liked a Mustang II wearing snake stickers and red-spoked wheels, it was a "special" model that served its purpose. I just hope no one bought the car and stuck it under glass, waiting for the big investment payoff. They'd have been better off just waiting a year, buying the far superior totally redesigned 1979 model, and driving the wheels off of it. There was even a "King Cobra" version that year, too, if you still pined for the hood decal.