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. The VIN also is key to car safety. By entering a VIN in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's free VIN Look-up Tool, 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 "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.
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.
Finally, here's the readout on a 2011 Ford Mustang GT. Notice that the manufacturer isn't listed as Ford Motor Company. No, Ford didn't get bought out like Chrysler. The Auto Alliance 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 VIN Uses
Other than using your VIN for deciphering your car's pedigree, you can use it 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 a car you're considering for purchase. Before you buy a used car (even if it's from a dealer), it's important to get the vehicle's VIN and use it to run a history report on sites like AutoCheck or Carfax. The reports can reveal if the car has been reported stolen or if it has a salvage title. 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.