What's in a name? A Ford Edsel by any other name would still drive as sweetly, right?
Maybe -- or maybe not. At their core, cars are essentially appliances to get from one place to another. And yet, we want our cars to protect and project a certain image. As J Mays, Ford's chief designer recently told Esquire, "Anybody can make a toaster toast. Very few people can make a toaster something you covet."
A car's name is part of how automakers make their cars worth coveting. Get it just right, and the car's image can be projected in a single word. Get it wrong, and the car can become the butt of jokes and a sales nightmare.
Know Your Numbers and Letters
Because so much is riding on a car's name, a lot of carmakers play it safe. That means designating a car not by a rugged locale, powerful animal or made-up word (Acura Integra, anyone?) but by a few letters and numbers that have less of a risk of offending consumers. According to Forbes, with number/letter names part of the goal is for owners and buyers to "think and talk of the brand, and not the nameplate." That works well for automakers with focused lineups.
Of course, that doesn't mean there aren't trends in the letter names. Odds are, if there's an X in the name, you're looking at a crossover or SUV (Lincoln MKX, Volvo XC90, Infiniti EX, BMW X3), though there are a few exceptions -- like the Jaguar XF and Acura TSX.
Tacking a few numbers onto a car's name not only helps it sound cool, it can tell savvy shoppers exactly what the car is packing. The Infiniti QX56 gets the "56" from its 5.6-liter engine and the Infiniti G37 has a 3.7-liter engine. However, the pattern doesn't always hold. For BMW, the first number in a car's name refers to its body style, and the second two numbers refer to the engine displacement.
Of course, automakers don't have to stick with numbers and letters to let you know what's under the hood. The Porsche Boxster, for example, gets its name from its flat-six "boxer" engine. The now-discontinued Volkswagen Cabrio got its name because it was a cabriolet.
Lost In Translation
While some carmakers use numbers and letters to keep the focus on their brands, others choose to add a little foreign flair to their models. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.
The Porsche Carrera means "race" in Spanish -- a fitting and flashy name for a hot-performing luxury car. The Hyundai Tiburon got its name from the Spanish word for "shark," giving the entry-level sports coupe a dash of mystique and animal magnetism. Prius is Latin for "to go before," perfect for a car that Toyota hoped would change the automotive landscape.
Of course, the problem with using foreign words and phrases is that they may not work in all markets. For example, the Buick LaCrosse may give Americans an image of European refinement, but LaCrosse is slang among French Canadian teenagers for a certain private act. Ever hear of the Mitsubishi Pajero? Probably not. In the U.S. and Latin America, it's known as the Montero -- because Pajero is Spanish slang for a man who engages in that private act that French Canadian teenagers call "LaCrosse."
Animals have almost always been the go-to area for carmakers hunting for names. It's usually pretty obvious what image the maker is going for: something powerful and unique. No one wants to drive a Honda Tadpole.
So automakers have headed out into the wilds and come back with the Mercury Cougar, Ford Mustang, Chevy Impala and Dodge Ram. The Ram takes its theme even further; while a Ram is simply an uncastrated male sheep, Dodge offers its Ram truck in a Bighorn edition, which is a larger mountain sheep species. The often-maligned Ford Pinto had its name spun off of the Ford Mustang (a Pinto is a horse with large patches of white and another color), which launched the entire breed of pony cars.
Animal names don't always work, especially when they come from an animal that isn't as tough as car buyers might like. While the Volkswagen Rabbit projected an image of speed and nimble handling, VW ultimately switched the car's name to the Golf. Of course the Rabbit is just one of VW's animal-themed car names. VW has used the Beetle nameplate for decades, and one of their more recent models, the Tiguan, got its name by combining the words tiger and iguana.
Keep it Retro
Of course, when it comes to naming a new model, some automakers simply reach back and grab names that have worked for them in the past. The hope is that the old name will associate the new model with happy or familiar memories.
While some nameplates, like the Mustang and Suburban, have been going strong for decades, others simply try to pick up where the original car left off. So, when Dodge reintroduced the Charger in 2005, it was trying to infuse the four-door sedan with the muscle-car heritage of the original coupe, which was discontinued in 1978 (from 1983 to 1987 the Charger nameplate was used on a subcompact car -- something Dodge may have been hoping consumers forgot about). Dodge used the same tactic with the Challenger, and Chevy used it with the Camaro. More recently, Ford took changed the name of its large sedan, the Ford Five Hundred, to the Ford Taurus -- even though the Taurus was originally a midsize sedan.
So, carmakers have tried-and-true naming conventions, but how do they finally christen a car? They let consumers decide. Before a name hits the market, automakers go through rounds of testing where focus groups react to possible names. Some carmakers are even more democratic. For the Tiguan, VW let readers of Germany's Auto Bild magazine vote on the name -- and 350,000 did, selecting Tiguan over names like Nanuk and Rockton.
For most cars, the naming process can be pretty boring. According to Beverly Braga, a Product Public Relations Manager with Kia, the process for choosing the name for the Kia Borrego was pretty straightforward. "Although there is a loose connection to the Anza Borrego Desert in Southern California," Braga says, choosing the name came down to two factors: "What vehicle names were not already trademarked?" and "What names were received well in focus groups?"
Trademarks and focus groups: they don’t provide a whole lot of driving excitement, but they've probably kept lots of horrible car names from ever hitting the road.