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Throughout The Car Industry

What's In A Name?

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On: Wed, Sep 14, 2011 at 4:57PM | By: Peter C Sessler

What's In A Name?

A friend of mine recently got a new car, a Kia Sorento. I know that Kia is a Korean car so I decided to look into them a little bit. And did they try to imagine what it would be like to answer someone when asked what kind of a car they drive? “Why, I drive a new 2011 Sorento” or  “Yes, I just got a new Sorento,” replied John proudly. What kind of a name is this? To me, it sounds like my friend just got some pasta and Sorento cheese.

Originally, cars were named after the people who built them, such as the Dodge brothers, Louis Chevrolet, or Henry Ford, and even REO (Ransom Ely Olds, who also founded Oldsmobile). Even so, a brand name other than the maker’s name can create excitement; that’s probably why so many cars have been named after animals, Mustang, Camaro, Impala, Jaguar all come to mind. Exotic places and names of towns have also been used freely over the years. Newport, Malibu, and so forth.

Of course, car makers for years have used car names to try to give their cars a sense of more than they really are. For example, Pontiac used Grand Prix for some time, but if you translate it from the French, all it means is “Grand Prize.” Obviously, Pontiac thought it sure would sound a lot better to say Grand Prix than Grand Prize. Think of how silly it is to say “I drive a Pontiac Grand Prize.” Some car makers have even made up words to describe their cars. Does anyone know what a “Camry” is?

How about Pontiac’s crossover SUV, the Aztek; who thought of that one? When someone says Aztek to me I conjure an image of some Indian high priest on a pyramid cutting the heart out of some hapless sacrificial victim. Yuck! Chrysler pays homage to the Indians by naming their top of the line SUV the Grand Cherokee. And speaking of Chrysler, isn’t about time they updated the “Town and Country” to “Town and Suburbs”?

Some brand names have been abbreviated after long use. For example, everyone knows that T-Bird stands for Thunderbird or Vette for Corvette. But not every bird name has been abbreviated. F-Bird or S-Bird doesn’t quite sound right for Firebird or Sunbird.

The high-line German car makers Mercedes and BMW simply avoid the whole process by just assigning numbers to their cars. For example, the BMW 740i stands for: 7 Series, 4.0 liter engine, injected. The 328i stands for: 3 Series, 2.8 liter, injected. Porsche, on the other hand, can’t get away from the number 911. For over 40 years they’ve built countless versions of their sports car, all named 911. However, they did name their most recent new car with something other than numbers. They took the name of their Boxer engine design (a flat six) and combined it with Speedster and the result is, the Boxster. I can see the logic, but the name just doesn’t roll off your tongue.

The Japanese have generally copied whatever American or European manufacturers have done. Most of their names haven’t been very creative, especially when the car is for the Japanese market. For example the Nissan 350Z (and the 240, 260, and 280Z) were called the “Fairlady” in Japan.

The reality of all this is that a car’s name does have a bearing on its marketability. That’s why the car companies spend a lot of time and money to pick the right name for their cars. Sometimes, though, you can’t help wondering who’s doing the picking.


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