What is a car facelift?

July 02, 2020 by

When you’re researching for a new car you may come across the term ‘facelift’, but what exactly does this mean? Here’s everything you need to know.

The car industry is awash with jargon, but the term ‘facelift’ is one of the easier to understand because you don’t need an in-depth understanding of a car’s mechanical workings.

In this article we’ll explain what a facelift is, what it means for you as a buyer, and whether it’s something you need to consider during the buying process.

Car facelift meaning

You might think of a facelift as a surgical procedure that aims to give its recipient a new lease of life, and that principle applies to cars, with vehicle facelifts bringing a host of design, interior and tech upgrades aimed at increasing its appeal, and bringing it in line with more recently launched cars.

Car facelifts: exterior changes

Facelifts tend to see both the outside and the inside of cars changed. Precisely what is updated will vary from model to model, but exterior improvements often see redesigned bumpers, headlights, rear lights and radiator grilles fitted.

New styles of alloy wheels are also often added, while fresh paint colours might also be made available to buyers.

Car facelifts: interior changes

Changes to the interior of a facelifted car range from the subtle to the significant. Sometimes there are simply some new trim and upholstery options, or even a new air vent design. A new steering wheel may also be fitted.

Bigger changes may involve completely redesigned dashboards, and totally different infotainment systems fitted. Features like ambient lighting may be added or made more sophisticated, while what equipment is included in different trim levels tends to be changed, or trims can be added and deleted completely.

Car facelifts: engineering changes

Facelifts may also include updates to engines, gearboxes, chassis control systems and safety aids.

Cleaner-running engines may be introduced or more polluting ones removed from sale, while electrified options like a plug-in hybrid system may be offered. Four-wheel-drive systems may be made available – either for the first time or in conjunction with engines that weren’t previously available with them – while new, improved gearboxes are sometimes fitted as well.

Precisely what is changed with a facelift will also vary depending on they type of car being updated. A performance model might get a new, sporty driving mode or better adjustable dampers, while a refreshed EV might become available with a larger battery pack for greater range, or a smaller one for more affordable models.

Car facelifts: example

A good example of a modern facelift is the Ford Focus. The fifth-generation was introduced in 2019 and underwent a refresh in 2022. Exterior changes were subtle, with narrower headlights and more intricate lower bumper designs. The Ford badge was moved from the bonnet into the front grille to match with the firm’s other new models.

The cabin looks largely the same as before, apart from the larger infotainment display with Ford’s new, more advanced software. Some new mild hybrid engines were introduced, too.

The Ford Focus interior received a big infotainment system upgrade in 2022.

Why are cars facelifted?

Most car manufacturers launch a new generation of a given model every six to eight years. That’s a very long lifespan for what is, in essence, a consumer good. Apple launches a new iPhone every 12 months and the likes of Hotpoint and Zanussi will completely overhaul their fridges and washing machines every couple of years.

Facelifts, then, are a means to boost interest in a model that is past the first flush of youth but still some years from an all-new replacement, providing a platform for a fresh round of media exposure, advertising and dealership events.

There are other reasons for carrying out a facelift. Since a car was first launched, its maker may have completely changed its ‘family look’ – a set of styling cues that identify a car as being the product of a particular manufacturer – therefore, the styling needs a major revamp so the car resembles its newer rangemates.

When does a facelift happen?

It was probably Ford that developed the concept of the facelift back when the Model T was in production. Throughout its 19-year run, the Model T received a near-constant stream of updates such that a last-off-the-line 1927 (below right) example was a very different car to the 1908 original (below left).

Other American car manufacturers followed suit and, by the 1950s, most were applying annual changes – facelifts – to their models, a regime that still exists today. That’s why an American car’s age is usually defined by its ‘model year’, rather than its date of manufacture or registration, as in the UK.

Car manufacturers from the rest of the world tend not to facelift their cars so regularly. Cars sold in the UK typically receive a facelift about halfway through their lifecycle, usually three or four years after it was originally launched.

This is only a general rule of thumb, though. Some cars sold in the UK barely change at all over a 10-year production run, while others are constantly updated. The Nissan GT-R springs to mind in the latter case, a car fundamentally unchanged since its launch in 2007 but that seems to be updated every time there’s a week in the month. Thankfully, we’re past the time when facelifts were rushed out to correct major flaws.

How much does a facelift car cost?

The changes made in a facelift are usually concentrated in the areas of a car that are easiest to alter – bumpers, lights, etc. But even small changes to a car’s styling and specification cost a lot of money to design, implement and market.

That cost has to be met, so a facelift usually signifies an increase in a car’s list price. How big the increase is depends on how significant the changes are, ranging from a few hundred pounds to several thousand. There are rare cases when the price doesn’t change, though.

Can I save money when a car is facelifted?

On the facelifted model? Probably not, unless there’s an introductory offer. However, there are savings to be had on the outgoing model, which is perfect if you’re not worried about having the most up to date design.

This is because dealers typically want to have the latest models on the forecourt, so will need to shift the outgoing models quickly. As such, there could be excellent offers to be found, while sales people will be more open to haggling on the price.

Should I buy a facelift car?

Naturally, there are advantages to buying both pre- and post-facelift models. The changes may be small over the original model, but facelifted cars are generally notably improved. And you get the warm glow of knowing you’re driving the latest model!

But, as we’ve noted above, you’ll find dealers much more reluctant to drop the price, compared with the outgoing model, which will probably be available for a great deal.

Ultimately it comes down to personal preference. Theoretically, the facelifted car should be better looking and more technologically advanced. But the changes likely won’t be night and day, so if saving a few quid is more appealing the old model should serve you just fine.

In the used market, when looking at older generations of cars, you might find there’s not much difference in price between a pre- and post-facelift model. In these cases it’s almost always better to go with the updated version, assuming it’s within budget – but always consider other important factors such as the mileage and service history.

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