What Goes Into Naming a Car?

Despite over a century of practice, the process remains part of an inexact science, part trademark jujitsu, and a giant cultural minefield.

Oryx White Volkswagen Tiguan parked on mountaintopVolkswagen

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Car names take all forms: the alphanumerical (BMW 330ix, Toyota RAV4), the evocative (Dodge Viper, Ferrari Enzo), the iconic (Ford Mustang, Lamborghini Diablo), and of course the highly questionable (Chrysler Crossfire, Ford Probe). It’s enough to make you wonder: who comes up with this stuff?

A car’s name is so important, after all. It’s what calls out to you on billboards and TV ads, enticing you to rush to your nearest dealership. It’s the thing that lives in your imagination, the word that inspires all kinds of feelings—from the great (Chevrolet Corvette) to the not-so-much (Ford Pinto). Sometimes, the very best names can be transcendent. To name one example, the Ram truck resonated with consumers to the point that Chrysler spun it out of Dodge and into a standalone brand.

The Art Versus Science Approaches to Car Naming

Some car companies dedicate considerable time and resources just to come up with a pool of potential names based on the vehicle’s appearance, its target demographic, and the company’s own brand identity. When Toyota launched its first luxury division over three decades ago, it wanted to stamp it with a word that conjured a premium feel. Instead, it just made a name up—Lexus.

Ford's marketing team can came up with 150 names alone for one model. Generally speaking, you could say they have a fondness for words, only to settle on something starting with the letter F (Fusion, Focus, Flex). Chevrolet maintains a global database with upwards of 750 potential names.

Other automakers might open the process to the public. More than a decade ago, Volkswagen teamed up with a German magazine to hold a contest to name its new compact SUV. After reviewing 350,000 reader submissions, the company chose Tiguan—a mashup of the German words for tiger and iguana.

Every car company has a different philosophical approach to naming its cars. Toyota vehicles often reference royalty, architecture, and nature. The compact Corolla is named after the outer crowning portion of a flower. Volkswagen used to favor wind-based names (Passat, Jetta). Lamborghini likes calling its cars after bulls (Aventador, Huracan).

An Alphabet Soup of Car Names

If there’s a reason automakers grope for names, it’s because so many of the good ones are taken. In the mid-1990s, automakers rushed to trademark just about every accurate, naturally sounding word in the book.

The emotionally suggestive names of yesteryear (the Acura Legend) have given way to names that seem spat out of an online generator for Star Wars robot characters (see the Infiniti QX80, the Volvo XC90). Even harder than not being able to find real new names is wasting perfectly effective ones on products that bomb.

For instance, the Pontiac Aztek from the early 2000s was a great name that conjured thoughts of one of history’s most advanced civilizations. Unfortunately, today, the Aztek is better known as an eyesore of a crossover that is still almost universally panned as one of the worst cars ever made.

BMW prefers technically straightforward car names like the 330ix. The first number, “3,” designates the model range. At the same time, the middle “30” is meant to reference the engine displacement (although that’s gotten fuzzy over the years as manufacturers have streamlined their engine offerings for efficiency’s sake). The “i” is an abbreviation for the German word “einspritzen” or fuel injection. And the “x” stands for ”xDrive”, or all-wheel drive. It might be a mouthful, but once decoded, the name leaves little mystery to the model on offer.

Other luxury marques like Infiniti and Volvo follow this alphanumeric naming pattern, too, just not nearly as effectively as BMW. Even Mercedes, who was once so skilled at this, struggles for clarity now. If you’re cross-shopping Audis, good luck parsing a Q7 from a Q8.

Even alphanumeric names have become harder to option. In the end, Elon Musk’s SEXY Tesla lineup was thwarted by Ford owning the trademark to the Model E. So, Tesla’s compact sedan became the Model 3, completing a lineup that spells S3XY.

When Car Naming Goes Wrong

Increasingly, carmakers are farming out the job of christening new models to the same brand marketing firms that name cleaning products or prescription drugs. As much as automakers would love for a car to go by one name, specific names can be interpreted differently depending on the country. Audi stubbornly forged ahead with selling its TT Coupé in French-speaking countries despite the shocking way the name rolled off local tongues. The French pronunciation of the name rhymes with the phrase, "tête est coupé”, which literally translates to "the head is cut off," or "the decapitated Audi," if you like.

Moreover, names with cultural resonance in a car's home country may not stir similar passion abroad. Sometimes, these marketing firms run up against more basic roadblocks. The Japanese alphabet, for example, doesn't contain the letter "F" sound, which would make Ford's default nomenclature a challenge.

Electric vehicles seem to be big on technical-sounding names with upper- and lowercase letters that have become synonymous with efficiency and intelligence (as in the Toyota bZ4X). Still, that didn't stop Ford from extending the Mustang label to its battery-electric crossover Mach-E.

Sometimes, though, manufacturers can get too cute. Under considerable pressure to deliver an eco-friendly alternative to its gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs, Chevrolet rolled out a plug-in hybrid electric hatchback called the Volt for 2011. By all accounts, the Volt was an outstanding, simple-to-operate car that delivered terrific fuel economy. But it suffered from tepid promotion and a desire among dealers to push SUVs. And then, just when the obstacles to its success couldn’t seem any higher, GM pushed out a full-on electric vehicle called the Bolt EV—making it even harder to distinguish between the two cars.

It just goes to show how much a car’s name matters. The cars that get it right are the ones that stand the test of time.

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Andrew Lawrence
Andrew Lawrence learned to read from car magazines, learned to write drafting complaint letters to Audi execs, and learned to drive in a 1988 Volvo 760 Turbo wagon—and has been chasing that blissful rear-wheel drive high ever since. His main career goal is to write enough to afford owning (and repairing) a Volkswagen Phaeton.