This week, Infiniti found themselves the subject of much ridicule after their decision to rename all of their cars with a "Q-" or "QX-" prefix followed by two numbers.
It's not like "G37" or "JX35" had a ton of personality, but now fans of Nissan's luxury brand will need to make do with even vaguer, more nonsensical names like "Q60" and "QX70."
All of this got me thinking about car names. What makes a car's name good or bad? Does a name have anything to do with a car's success in the marketplace? Do names even really matter?
I believe that car names are important, and that good ones can at least help establish some appeal for the vehicle — while bad ones can backfire and make buyers ignore a car that might be great on its own.
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Often, naming a car is a dance between the automaker, marketers, designers, advertising people, focus groups and other people tasked with these kinds of things, as well as going after whatever name hasn't been used yet or just plain making something new up. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn't.
It could be argued that for the luxury car companies, the name of the model itself is less important than the badge. People like being able to say "I have a BMW" or "I have a Lexus," but you don't get the same effect when you say "I own a Chevrolet." Usually, you need to follow that by specifying whether it's a Cruze, a Malibu or a Silverado, but a BMW is a BMW. It carries a cachet that doesn't require elaboration with the actual model. If we follow this logic, perhaps Infiniti's rebranding won't be such a big deal.
Names for sporty cars are the easiest ones to get right. You need a name that invokes speed, excitement, performance, and viscousness. If it sounds like it can kill you, it's a good sports car name. Viper, Challenger, Cobra, Firebird, stuff with "GT" in it — all good names for that kind of car.
Nissan's Yutaka "Mr. K" Katayama is a genius for many reasons, and one of them is that he ordered that the original generation of Datsun Z be called "240Z" instead of "Fairlady Z." He knew Americans — specifically, American men — would never buy a sports car with a name like that. I am convinced that this is why the Miata unfairly gets as much shit as does for being a "girly car."
Obviously, you have to tailor your car's name to the market where it's being sold. Chinese cars have names that sound absurd to Westerners, but they have an entirely different aesthetic than we do. That's why it wouldn't be ridiculous for Ford to sell a small hatchback there called "Invincibility Tiger." (Actually, I'd probably a car if it had that name.)
SUVs are easy to get right as well, for the most part. For some reason, people like thinking they own tough, rugged off-roaders, so SUVs tend to carry names with outdoorsy-sounding shit like "Explorer," "Wrangler," "Land Cruiser," or "Santa Fe."
Then you have the so-called luxury car companies, many of whom have largely abandoned actual names for alphanumeric ones. We'll get to this in a bit.
And then sometimes, a car's name doesn't really matter because the car itself takes center stage. You think the success of the Toyota Camry or the Honda Accord depended on their names? Hardly. And sometimes, a car is so bad that it ruins whatever name was assigned to it. I'll go ahead and say that "Aztek" isn't an entirely terrible name, but I doubt GM will be bringing that one back because the car is now infamously awful.
Take a look at my list of some of the better — and not-so-better — car names of all time. Then tell us, what do you think are the best and worst car names? And if you're a car company, how do you get the name right?
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GREAT: Ford Mustang
As far as cames go, it's really hard to beat "Mustang." Immediately, it conjures up images of speed, performance, wildness, and fun. It even spawned an entire class of competitors that shared the same name — "pony car." What more could you want in a name? This is why Ford never even considered changing the name of the Mustang when they briefly decided to give all their cars names starting with F in the 2000s, a dumb idea they later abandoned.
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Oh, BMW. You got it right for so long. And then you didn't. Often imitated but never duplicated, BMW had a brilliant naming strategy that began around the mid-70s. Three digits — the first one tells what model it is, and the last two tell the size of the engine in liters (more or less accurately.) Got a 535i? Then you have a 5-Series with a 3.5-liter engine. They go in order based on the car's size: 3, 5, 6, 7. So many luxury carmakers have tried to copy this kind of system, and none of them have ever really pulled it off.
Of course, this strategy becomes problematic when you start adding in new models, something BMW has done once or twice since then. Now they sell a car called the Z4 sDrive35i, and I feel like a moron every time I type its name. Also, their modern cars don't really follow the old system all that well. The current 328i has a 2.0-liter engine, and the 335i has a 3.0-liter.
Photo credit Micheal Evans
GREAT: Land Rover Discovery
Once again, like the Mustang, you have a name that so perfectly epitomized what the car is about. There are few better names out there for an SUV capable of true offroading than "Discovery." It makes you think of safaris and adventures into the bush, even if you're probably just using it to pick up your kids from orchestra practice at their private school. So what did Land Rover do with this amazing name? They renamed it the LR4, which is vague and has no character or meaning whatsoever. Time to get new marketing people, Land Rover.
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GREAT: Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud
Here it is, ladies and gentlemen. Rolling proof that a great luxury car doesn't need a doofy alphanumeric name. The name Silver Cloud is nearly as beautiful as the car itself. It rolls off your tongue, sounding elegant and exclusive and mysterious all at once. It makes you think of the car's legendarily smooth ride and comfort. Of course, if the same car were to be relaunched in 2012, it would have to be called the RRSC-750 or some such nonsense.
Photo credit Richard.Fisher
NOT SO GREAT: Lincoln and Acura
Lincoln and Acura's naming choices in recent years have been whipped like a dead horse around here, so I have no problems continuing to do so. We all know the problem: their names have no character, and don't really do anything to distinguish the cars from one another. Look at Lincoln's current lineup: Honestly, I have trouble keeping the MKS, MKT, MKX and MKZ straight, and I do this shit for a living. (Navigator's easy enough to remember, though. There's a lesson to be learned there.)
Acura, you're equally as bad. NSX worked as a name because the car itself was so distinctive and special; the same kind of name does the ILX no favors. Again, there's nothing in this system to tell you which car is which. Adding an "X" to the RL isn't going to fix things, either. I promise. Were Legend and Vigor better names? I would argue that they were.
Photo credit HighTechDad
NOT SO GREAT: Ford Edsel
The Edsel may just be the all-time champion of bad car naming. And that's kind of a shame, because both the car and the man behind the name don't deserve the reputation they ended up with. Edsel Ford was the much-bullied son of Henry Ford, and although he died fairly young at age 49 in 1943, he was an innovator at Ford Motor Company and is credited with much of their early success.
The car that bore his name was launched in 1957 as a new division alongside Mercury and Lincoln, and it failed fairly miserably. Why? Lots of reasons, including a high price tag and that goofy grille. But many Americans also just never warmed up to that awkward, uninspiring name, and today the word "Edsel" has become a synonym for "failure." That's a shame because the car itself had a lot of interesting features that put it ahead of its time.
Photo credit Arend Vermazeren
NOT SO GREAT: AMC Gremlin
I'm a big fan of AMC. Their quirky, do-things-differently attitude produced some really interesting cars over the years. One of them is the Gremlin, which tends to rank pretty high on every "Worst Cars Ever" list on the Internet. Ugly looks, questionable quality, poor handling and a genuine lack of speed made for a car that isn't exactly a desirable classic today.
But let's talk about the name. It's not attractive, it doesn't inspire thoughts of performance or comfort or economy, and it means an impish little monster who sabotages machines and makes them break down. And this is a good name for a car... um, why exactly? The Gremlin had a lot of problems when it came out, but its name certainly didn't do it any favors.
Photo credit aldenjewell