How to Quickly Decode Your VIN

What 17 Numbers and Letters Can Tell You About Your Car

A vehicle identification number (VIN) is the 17-digit "name," made up of numbers and characters, that an automobile manufacturer assigns to an individual vehicle. Vehicle identification numbers can reveal a number of things about automobiles, including their airbag type, country of origin, engine size, model year, vehicle type, trim level and plant name. The VIN (sometimes known, redundantly, as the VIN number) is key to safety. By entering a VIN in the free tool from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, you can see whether a vehicle is subject to a recall. 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 "How to Make Sense of Your Car's VIN" explains what each section of the VIN represents, including the world manufacturer identifier, the vehicle identifier section and the vehicle descriptor section. You'll learn about the "check digit," used to detect invalid VINs, and the digits that reveal the plant code for the car. It explains the section of the VIN that represents the serial number and the production number.

But if you want to get a free, quick, personalized VIN lookup, try the website. It is a free VIN decoder that can check your car's data in a matter of seconds. You may have to deal with a few ads that surround the information, but what you get is accurate and worth a look. We entered a few VINs from former members of the Edmunds long-term test fleet and found some interesting information.

Decode Your VIN

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 are manufactured at Subaru's plant in Japan.

Decode Your VIN

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 anytime soon.

General Motors originally intended to launch the Volt with a flex-fuel variant, but the emissions package was not ready for the car's introduction, 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.

Decode Your VIN

We were curious what the VIN looked like on an electric vehicle so we decoded the one on our former 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.

Decode Your VIN

The 2012 Fiat 500 is a reminder of just how globalized automakers 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 year is represented by one character (letter or number) and the VIN can only contain 17 characters, the code for a car's year has to be recycled every 30 years. So while one letter can represent more than one year, it should be pretty obvious whether you've got a 1982 or a 2012 — or 2042, for that matter.

Decode Your VIN

Finally, here's a bit of vehicle history on a 2011 Ford Mustang GT. Notice that the manufacturer isn't listed as Ford Motor Co. No, Ford didn't get bought out like Chrysler. The AutoAlliance International Inc. was a joint venture between Ford and Mazda that produced the Mustang and the Mazda 6 for a while at the plant in Flat Rock, Michigan. Newer Mustangs correctly list Ford as the automaker.

Other Uses
Other than VIN decoding to learn an automotive pedigree and some key specifications, you can use those digits for less entertaining but more important reasons involving its title, registration and insurance. Another critical use of a VIN is to obtain a vehicle history report for cars you're considering for purchase. Before you buy a used vehicle — even if it's from a dealer — it's important to get the VIN and use it to run a history report on sites such as AutoCheck or Carfax. The reports can reveal if the motor vehicles you're considering have been reported stolen or if they have salvage titles. There are several types of reports to choose from. Read "Which Vehicle History Report Is Right for You?" to decide.

A VIN is also important for purchasing replacement parts for your vehicle. Bring it along when you buy. Vehicle parts are often specific to certain VINs and may not fit your car if you only go by its year, make and model.