Automotive Analysis: What's in a Car Name?

By Jacob Brown | July 18, 2011
What's in a name?” Sir William Shakespeare wrote in "Romeo and Juliet," the most famous story of “Family Feud” gone horribly wrong. “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
It’s an excellent question to ask considering the car market today, whether you’re a consumer or a automotive journalist. The car names emblazoned on the backs of vehicles once let buyers know exactly what each one did. Mercury had its Turnpike Cruiser. Pontiac had its GTO, Gran Turismo Omologato, or homologated grand tourer. Pontiac enthusiasts also suggest it could stand for “gas, tires, oil,” all three of which the GTO would go through frequently.
Foreign cars generally stuck to alphanumeric designations with few changes after the 1970s and ‘80s. A BMW 328i, for instance, was in the 3 Series range and, until recently, carried a 2.8-liter I-6 engine. The “i” signifies fuel-injection technology, but BMW never felt the need to get rid of it after carburetors left the market.
Now, though, the 2012 328i is expected to have a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder. And where once car names stood for something, we have the 2011 MINI Countryman All4, a vehicle that weighs 3200 lbs, and its marketers dare call that diminutive enough to deserve the name “MINI”? Then again, BMW -- MINI’s keepers -- differentiate the current brand from the original British make, “Mini,” a telltale sign that the German automaker recognizes the improprieties afoot with the British brand’s equity. So much for keeping to the mission of Sir Alec Issigonis.
Continuing this trend of keeping the caps lock button on while writing marketing materials, Nissan lists its Juke and Leaf models without a single lowercase letter. Back in school, we were taught that caps lock, on top of being difficult to read, is equivalent to expressing anger or rage. So, we ask, why is Nissan in such a bad mood about two of its more environmentally friendly small cars?
Conversely, Mercedes-Benz spells out its 2011 Smart cars in all lowercase letters — something we won't do here. This practice makes it especially difficult for journalists reading through press releases for several hours a day to find information when we need it. Shoppers may feel the same way as just 492 Smarts found owners in May 2011 in the U.S., and Mercedes-Benz excluded the sales information for the Smart brand from its June data.
But at least North American car buyers should be thankful we don’t have Nissan Qashqais or Kia Cee’ds — two of the most unpronounceable names ever conjured in executive offices — on our lots to confuse us. For reference, Qashqai is a Turkish language spoken in some parts of Iran and Iraq, but we have no idea what a Cee’d is or why there is an apostrophe in the middle of its name. British automotive journalist Jeremy Clarkson simply calls it the “C-E-E-apostrophe-D.” How else would you pronounce it?
If obscure names have become de rigueur, it may be best to follow the Suzuki method. When it was time to determine the name of its small Japanese-market van, the company’s marketing team came up with the Suzuki Every Joy Pop Turbo. Weird, sure, but the name is nothing short of amusing. We'll be repeating that name all day now, and likely you will, too.
Evocative names should have more widespread use because they work. The word “Camry,” as in the 2011 Toyota Camry midsize sedan, means “crown,” which it certainly is in the Japanese automaker’s North American lineup. Accord means “to bring harmony.” Both make sense. Chevrolet’s midsizer, the Malibu, is named after a beautiful and rather pricey part of Southern California.
Back in the 1990s, the Acura luxury division had cars like the Integra, Vigor, and Legend. In the flagship position, it had the NSX sports car, and even that made sense as the “New Sports car Experiment.” But today, all the brand has are the TSX, TL, RL, ZDX, and MDX. Sure, they’re differentiated enough to tell them apart, but what do they mean to the average consumer beyond a few jumbled letters?
Worse yet, Lincoln seems to have given up on a naming its cars altogether. For the 2012 model year, the Navigator is the only non-alphanumeric vehicle left now that the Town Car full-size sedan is gone. New Lincolns are separated by just one letter apiece — the MKZ and MKS sedans and MKX and MKT crossovers. At one point, the brand even had a rebadged Ford F-150 known as the Mark LT. For anyone who hasn’t taken some time to study Lincoln’s vehicles, figuring out which name goes to which vehicle could take a while. “Elegance is in the simplicity,” said one of my marketing professors in college. He believed that the MBAs and corporate big-wigs of the world had lost the plot; they stood atop their soapboxes and believed that consumers would buy whatever they could dish up without question. He was right.
It’s easier to identify with a Land Rover Discovery than an LR4; a 458 Italia than an MP4-12C; or even a BMW with an alphanumeric designation that's similar to the car's actual engine displacement. Poet Gertrude Stein wrote, “A rose is a rose is a rose,” signifying, once again, that elegance is in the simplicity.
Ask a committee in charge of naming new cars today to provide a name for such a flower and it may return with “RSE Shortstem35i.” The convolution may not matter now, but when cars someday have quad-turbochargers on a 1.0-liter car and it’s badged as something with five times the displacement, that’ll feel like much more than a white lie. It’s time to think like customers instead of trying to think above them.