What’s in a Name? How Car Makers Play the Name Game

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Cars by simple definition are just a mode of transportation but in reality once you make the investment they are part of the family, we at Penske know some of our customers even name their vehicle.  Along those lines have you ever thought of how auto manufacturers name products.

A name can sometimes be everything; the determining factor to whether a model is worth coveting or not. 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.

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 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.” Alphabet soup and cryptic code 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 like Lexus RX, BMW X5, Volvo XC90 and the list goes on.  But this shouldn’t be a go to rule, there are a few exceptions like Jaguar XF or Acura TSX.

Numbers have also pleased a big role in the naming convention. For example, Infiniti QX56 the ‘56’ stands for 5.6-liter engine.  However, this isn’t a trend across all automakers the BMW 1 series has a 3.0-liter engines and BMW 7 series has a 4.4-liter V8, not 7.0 liters.

Of course, automakers don’t have to stick with numbers and letters to let you know what’s under the hood.  For example the Porsche Boxster’s name derives from flat six boxer engine and VW Cabrio got its name because it was a cabriolet.

Another trend is choosing names with foreign influence.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. For example Porsche included Carrera in the name which means ‘race’ in Spanish, Hyundai used the Spanish word for ‘shark’ when they named the Tiburon and Toyota turned to the Latin phrase ‘to go before’ when they named Prius. Of course, the problem with using foreign words and phrases is that they may not translate ideally, like  Chevrolet NOVA is ‘no go’ in Spanish.

Animals have almost always been the go-to 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. With that in mind manufacturers have released Ford Mustang and Dodge Viper.  However, not all automakers uses strong powerful animals to name their cars hence we have Volkswagen Beetle and Volkswagen Rabbit. In these instances the goal was to demonstrate speed and small size.  Interestingly, many common animal names cannot be used because they come with trademark restrictions and other legal issues.

Heritage also plays a key factor. Iconic names such as Beetle and Mustang have a place in automotive history, but should only be put on cars fitting of their stature. For example Dodge named their 2005 model Charger in an attempt to infuse the four-door sedan with the muscle-car heritage of the original coupe, which was discontinued in 1978.

While car makers usually have an extensive product development team that researches and proposes concepts sometimes automakers leave it up to consumers.  For the Tiguan VW ran a contest and everyday people could vote on best option.

Naming of vehicles is far less scientific than customers might think. The Taurus, introduced in 1985, took its name from the astrological sign of a Ford executive’s wife.

So what do you think?  What are the best, the worst and the weirdest car names of all times?

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