• Sep 23, 2009
What's in a name? Does it really matter what you call a car, or will a car sell well as long as it's well designed?

As an enthusiast, I always felt that the name of a car never really mattered all that much. I was always more interested in the design and the mechanical aspects of the machine rather than the badge. If it had a cool sounding name, sure, that was good. But to me a great car was a great car no matter what they called it.

Now I'm not so sure.

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John McElroy is host of the TV program "Autoline Detroit" and daily web video "Autoline Daily". Every week he brings his unique insights as an auto industry insider to Autoblog readers.
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The automotive business is not so much about making cars as it is about selling them. The public is attracted to products that meet their dreams and aspirations, and to brands which connote the proper cachet. Coming up with the right name for a car makes this process a lot easier. After all, consumers are bombarded with hundreds of different car names. Who can keep track?

The automotive business is not so much about making cars as it is about selling them.
Getting the name right on a car can help to instantly communicate its personality. Names like Mustang, Viper, and Corvette instantly conjure up images that match the personality of those vehicles. That makes it a lot easier to sell potential customers on the idea that this is the car for them.

Alphanumeric names can work too, but only for certain brands. Mercedes-Benz and BMW have been using alphanumeric names forever, and there is a logic behind how they name them. The letters and numbers have always referred to the size of the car and the engine's displacement (Or at least they used too. -Ed.). This has the added benefit of putting more emphasis on the name of the brand rather than on the name of the car.

I think Cadillac and Lincoln committed a strategic error in dumping their proper names and going with alphanumerics. They did this in the mistaken belief that if they mimicked Benz and BMW, it would somehow make their cars sound more prestigious. I think all they've managed to do is confuse their customers. Their combination of letters really don't mean anything.

Made-up names like Camry, Versa, or even Camaro can work, but only because they have a pleasant combination of vowels and consonants. And they're easier to remember than a collection of numbers and letters. Moreover, they work well in many languages.

[Names are] easier to remember than a collection of numbers and letters.
That's an important consideration. Exporting cars to foreign markets can really trip up a car company. There's the old urban legend that says GM made a huge mistake years ago trying to sell the Chevrolet Nova in Latin America because "no va" translates into "it doesn't go." But I used to live in South America and I'm here to tell you GM never sold a "Nova" there. It was always called the Chevy II.

But there have been some truly hilarious mistakes. In Spanish slang pajero means... one who pleasures himself, and Mitsubishi had the misfortune of naming one of its SUVs the Pajero and then shipping boatloads of them to South America. When it finally caught onto its mistake a horrified Mitsubishi tried to change the name as fast as it could. If I remember right, in Spanish speaking markets they changed it to Shogun.

Pontiac ran into the same problem with the 6000 STE in the 1980's because STE is the abbreviation for a female saint and for reasons which escape me, STE is mildly profane in Quebec. More recently, Buick ran into problems with the LaCrosse, because it also refers to self-pleasure in Quebecois slang.

So yes, the names of cars can be critically important. And since these days it can cost well over a $100 million in advertising to establish a name in the minds of most car buyers, you better get it right.

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    • 1 Second Ago
  • 45 Comments
      • 5 Years Ago
      Nova never sold in South America? Not according to Snopes. They said it was sold under that name in Venezuela, which last I checked is in S.A., and sold well. The fact is, Nova wouldn't be translated as "no go".

      http://www.snopes.com/business/misxlate/nova.asp
      • 5 Years Ago
      The usually very well-informed John McElroy is a little off on the Mitsubishi Pajero nomenclature for other markets. The Shogun name was only used in the United Kingdom. In Spain and Latin America it was sold as the Mitsubishi Montero, just like in North America.

      The Japanese are definitely the champions when it comes to giving their cars names that are hilariously impolite in Spanish. Mazda named its 660cc kei car Laputa, which is Spanish for the whore. And Nissan's entry in the segment bears the Moco badge, which is Spanish for booger.
      • 5 Years Ago
      My aunt always swore that her Corvair was the best car she ever owned.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Maybe I'm getting old, but I stopped bothering to know the difference anymore. Mk what? McElroy's recent AutolineDetroit episode on the topic of car names was the first one I just shut off, so bored was I.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Acura and Lincoln have the most confusing car name/numbering system on Earth.
      I also agree that Cadillac needs to go back to the name system.
      I always thought that the Seville and the Deville names were pretty cool.
      The Corvair may not have been cool, but the name sure is.
      • 5 Years Ago
      No...names don't matter.

      Take the bonehead move the Big Al insisted on...bringing the 'Taurus' name back.

      Did that help sales at all over the Five Hundred? Not at all...in fact, sales were MUCH worse.

      Although...Lincoln's alphabet soup names are the absolute worst in the industry. Completely nonsensical and random...kinda like Lincoln as a whole.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Correct me if I am wrong, but the Taurus starts 2 grand lower than an Avalon, and 2 grand higher than an Impala, which suck compared to the Taurus.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Whoa... I agree with Brian on this one. If the Fusion was the Taurus we would've had a more comparable-to-the-old SHO. And the 500 could've brought back the LTD name.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Well Brian, it wasn't a mistake if you ignore how Ford slowly killed the car from 1996-2009.

        Ford already realized that the Taurus name was damaged beyond repair in 2005 when they brought out the Fusion. And the 2010 reskin is FAR to expensive for a Taurus. People will associate 'Taurus' with what they are used to...rental cars...not flagships.

        The 2010 reskin should have been named Five Hundred (but that name would have been damaged as Ford screwed up that car in 2005 and 2008) or make up a new name...like Falcon, Galaxy, etc.
        • 5 Years Ago
        The mistake wasn't bringing the name back, it was putting it on their flagship. The Fusion should be the Taurus. The "Taurus" they have now should be the Crown Vic or LTD.
      • 5 Years Ago
      If you gotta do the alphanumeric soup thing, at least make it somewhat logical like BMW or Mercedes. Lincoln's scheme makes zero sense, Caddy's only halfway makes sense (WTF is an "SRX"?) Caddy should have stuck with the old names instead of trying to be something it isn't.
        • 5 Years Ago
        If Mercedes makes sense, then so soon will Cadillac once the new car XTS and ATS comes out

        A is smaller then C is smaller then X for their Touring Sedans.
        SRX is a Crossover.
        Escalade is a body on frame SUV.
        • 5 Years Ago
        The Lincoln names at least made sense to someone.

        MKZ- Mark Zephyr
        MKS- Mark Sedan
        MKX- Mark Crossover
        MKT- Mark Touring

        Mark is a historic connotation to Lincoln and they are obviously going after heritage with the split wing grilles they have. Problem is that very few people know of the old Lincoln heritage and those that do don't care. From what I understand, they were originally going to spell out Mark on the badge but decided the MK would express that. This was a bit of a fail on that part because, again, the old school legendary Lincolns are not as well remembered as they would have liked.

        Cadillac tried a bit too but with a little less sense than Lincolns, problem is in both cases, you run out of names when you have two similar vehicles. MKS could have been the C segment Z or the D segment S as both are sedans. STS and DTS are too close too.

        All that being said, MB and BMW may have done it from the beginning but MB in particular makes little sense anymore. BMW got crazy by adding i and x and every other letter possible to start describing options instead of models and engines. Acura and Lexus' names don't even have any draw to anything MDX. RDX, TSX, RSX, RX, EX, ES, maybe they mean something, but I sure as hell don't know what it is.

        If I were running any of these brands, I'd go back to real names for Lincoln, Caddy, Acura, and would make Lexus have names (I think they started with the alpha naming scheme). MB and BMW would return to the simpler naming and skip all the extra crap, I don't need to know my car is all-wheel drive by adding an x to the name.
        • 5 Years Ago
        You forgot about Acura. Theirs are almost as confusing as Lincolns, almost.

        I never really thought BMW or Mercedes made sense either, but oh well.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Acura's trying to build off the brand power of the NSX.
        • 5 Years Ago
        I heard SRX is "S-Series Reconfigurable Crossover."
      • 5 Years Ago
      "I think Cadillac and Lincoln committed a strategic error in dumping their proper names and going with alphanumerics.""I think all they've managed to do is confuse their customers. Their combination of letters really don't mean anything."

      I know with the Cadillac
      CTS = Catera Touring Sedan
      STS = Seville Touring Sedan
      DTS = Deville Touring Sedan

      I am not sure if any of the newer models have names behind the letters.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Brandon has a point though - if people don't know the previous names, they won't understand. And what people to do - remember two names? The new and the old.

        As for the GLK, etc... Mercedes has really messed up their naming structure lately. They've gotten just as bad or worse than the people trying to copy them. It all started with the SLK IMO.
        • 5 Years Ago
        okay brandon: what does (MB) GLK, SL, ML (now just M), R, S and Audi's 4,6,8 mean?


        • 5 Years Ago
        Let's someone has never heard of the Catera, Seville, or Deville. What do those acronyms mean to them? The same thing it means to me, nothing.
      • 5 Years Ago
      John, always been enjoying your writings, you're a smart fellow, and definitely stand out in the auto crowd. Agree with what you're saying here but it seems to me there is more to it. Think you about it - guys paying for overpriced 3-series BMW with cheap plastic wheel covers faking the aluminum wheels and all other fake stuff - have you ever asked yourself why? You really think because of car qualities? Common, of course not, rather because they want to show off, to demonstrate how successful they are. Now combine this with extremely low self-esteem of Americans as a nation, (and it seems higher education, lower opinion on fellow citizens), and it means that domestic manufacturers will never be able to sell a Lincoln or Cadillac at the same margin as Lexus or Benz regardless of the car they come up with. Solution? Market a car as foreign-made. (Don't mean Chinese though, the national self-esteem not there yet, give it a bit more time). For example, I've been always saying that GM made grave mistakes costing them dearly when they tried to sell Astras as Saturns and Commodors as alphanumeric meaningless G8s. I’m quite sure they would've been much more successful selling them as Opels and Holdens. Give it a thought, may be you would want to develop this idea further and bring it to attention of domestic car brass.
      Cheers,
      • 5 Years Ago
      I thought Camry actually came from a Japanese word for "crown", kamuri?
        • 5 Years Ago
        You are correct.

        What's more, Toyota has always had a thing for crowns, with the largest Toyota-badged sedan being the Crown, and the Camry's predecessor was the Corona (Spanish for crown)
      • 5 Years Ago
      I think that as good as John can sometimes be, he has missed the obvious here, which is the logic behind most of Lincoln's and Caddy's naming schema

      Lincoln: starts off with the MK designation referencing the glory days of the Mark series.
      Z- refers to the Zephyr replacement, albeit a short lived name
      X- cross (X) over
      S- Refers to the LS replacement
      T- okay, I'm stumped

      Caddy: @TS- Touring Sedan
      C- Catera replacement
      S- Seville replacement
      D- DeVille replacement
      SRX- okay, I'm stumped but the X is crossover
      XLR- extra large roadster, okay I'm reaching

      point being, its not completely arbitrary though the numbering scheme is turning that way on the german series.
        • 5 Years Ago
        MKS I think is Sedan
        MKT stands for Touring
        • 5 Years Ago
        Good point geo.stewart. This is an old topic and listening to him bash the Americans but not the Japanese and then praise the Germans, is also old. People like him have constantly told the American luxury car makers that if they want to survive, they have to get rid of the perception that the sell grandpa cars. Names like Fleetwood, Deville, Continental, Town Car do not have much equity with young people. So they get rid of the names and they get bashed regardless. All Cadillac and Lincoln have to do is make better cars and people will learn what the alphanumerics mean.
        • 5 Years Ago
        I always thought of MKT as "Truck" since it's supposed to be like an SUV which are called trucks...

        • 5 Years Ago
        SRX--station ragon? Works for export to Asian markets.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Oh and let me add that Cadillac does not say "Catera Touring Sedan" it is "C-segment/series Touring Sedan." Saying Deville or Seville Touring Sedan is fine and there actually was a trim level of Seville STS and Deville DTS prior to the change, but they want to distance themselves and this new car from the poorly received Catera.

        X is for Excellance, as in above the rest for the X (Luxury Roadster) and upcoming X (Touring Sedan.)

        EXT = Esacalde Reconfigurable/Crossover Truck
        ESV = Escalade Stretch Vehicle
        • 5 Years Ago
        brandon, that may be so, but my point is that John, if he is any kind of auto expert, should known the naming convention at least as well as we do and be explaining it rather than bashing the US and not the Euro crap or the Asian mess.

        the only thing MB and BMW have going for them are that their smaller classes line up with Euro-listing (ie A- or 1- series, 3- or C- series, 5- or E-class, all lining up with European vehicle class listing) After those, their nomenclature is at least as haphazard as Lincoln and Cadillac; though no one can figure out Acura.

        • 5 Years Ago
        while you may be right about Lincoln's intent, I doubt that the people they're trying to sell cars to even remember the "Mark" nomenclature. Those that do are probably only looking at the Town Car.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Having an X in the name usually helps: WRX, Exige, FX, SRX
      Not always: X-Type, Matrix, Matrix
        • 5 Years Ago
        Fiesta-R
        Fiesta X

        Yeah it helps. But honestly, I'd rather just drive a Ford Verve.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Oops, supposed to be Matrix, Expedition.
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