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.


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.

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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