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Why so many alphanumeric model names?

I am not easily embracing the trend by U.S. auto manufacturers to use numbers and letters (alphanumerics) to name vehicles. And it seems to be getting more and more commonplace. In the not so distant past, few vehicle names solely involved alphanumerics. There have always been some, but not the barrage that exists in today’s U.S. market. These days it seems nearly every automaker is jumping on the bandwagon, but mostly the trend exists among the luxury brands. Who has decided that luxury cars can only be named with impersonal numbers and letters?
Who Decided Cars and Trucks Sold By Luxury Brands Must Have Alphanumeric Names?
By my count, 11 of the 14 “luxury” brands in the U.S. presently use alphanumeric nomenclature exclusively or nearly exclusively. Another, Lincoln is heading in this direction as indicated by a few of their recent auto show concepts. Porsche is a holdout. It has its venerable 911 model upon which its reputation has been made, but Porsche management has stated that Porsche will use names instead of alphanumerics for future Porsche designations.
Land Rover, on the other hand, is moving towards the dark side of alphanumerics… at least in the USA. Land Rover North America launched its LR3 in 2005 and it has been a good success for them, but in the rest of the world LR3 is the Discovery, a name also well-established in the USA. I don’t particularly like replacing Discovery with LR3. I guess LR3 signifies that it’s the third model in the Land Rover lineup? But it might not mean much to Mr. and Mrs. Average Consumer, and for me Discovery was a perfectly acceptable name for an off-road capable SUV. In an interesting aberration to its naming strategy, after the LR3 was launched, Land Rover launched the Range Rover Sport… a name, not alphanumeric. Weird. But who says naming has to be rational?
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At some point, luxury brand A (along with advertising folks) figured that coming up with a string of three letters would be much better and maybe easier than coming up with a good name that actually meant something to consumers. And to keep up with the Jones’ the “name” apparently needs to involve an X (SRX, WRX, LX, RX, etc, etc..) to signify sporty or SUV or crossover or desirable product that consumer A will want to buy.

Is Alphanumeric Naming Just the Easy Way Out?
Is it easier to come up with a model “name” that involves only alphanumerics? Maybe. But companies still pay big bucks to research the proposed string of letters. So why not get a little more creative? This practice just says laziness to me. Come on, buck the trend. Even I can come up with a B14QX-3, and if you say it enough it starts to sound cool. For my taste some actual thought needs to take place when using the English language. More than just composing a jumble of numbers and letters. It reminds me of when my two year old was first learning the alphabet and all the letters are there when she stumbles through it, but they’re a little jumbled. I say, save some money and do the research of your All-New All-Wheel Drive Super Sport Crossover Ute with a focus group of two year olds reciting the alphabet.

Acura Legend Becomes RL Parodied as “Ruined Legend”

Often, even more disappointing than using alphanumerics to name a new car is when an automaker discontinues use of a model name that really was great. Acura Legend comes to mind – replaced by the RL. At the same Acura dealership one can find the TL, TSX, RSX, MDX and soon the RDX. This is just one brand. There are many more. The WRX and the SRX nomenclature would fit nicely in the Acura showroom. But no, one’s a Subaru and one’s a Cadillac. A big complaint is that there are so many of these models out there that much confusion exists, and I’m not the average consumer – I work in the industry and sometimes I don’t know one from the other.
My favorite is the new Subaru B9 Tribeca (benign?). Isn’t this a space on a Bingo board? When you say Corvette, Jetta, Accord and Suburban I can relate. These names mean something to me.
Ford Naming Strategy A Mess
Sure there are great names that still exist and have been around for a long time. Ford wouldn’t think of changing the name of the Mustang to the M – fill in the blank with a number. But Ford is limiting themselves by deciding that SUVs will start with an E (Escape, Edge, Explorer, Expedition, the late, lamented Excursion) and cars with an F (Freestar, Fusion, Five Hundred). But then Ford fumbles by naming its Five Hundred based crossover SUV the Freestyle. By their naming strategy, unless they really thought Freestyle is a car, Freestyle should have used an “E” name.
Mercury Montego and Mercury Monterey… Wrong Names on Wrong Vehicles
Of course, we can critique names chosen by companies all day long – even those who have chosen actual names rather than alphanumerics. Mercury is another good example. Mercury, with its years of heritage, has names like Monterey, Montego, Parklane, Colony Park, Turnpike Cruiser and Villager to parcel around its new vehicles. But Mercury chose to give its sure-to-fail minivan the golden moniker of “Monterey”. Wow! What a name! It elicits images of upscale luxury, comfort, elegance. Then Mercury quickly named its large sedan the Montego – a name previously used on a moderately successful mid-size car. Ugh. Can you imagine the naming strategy sessions going on inside Ford when these names were selected. Well, whatever, they got these backwards.
Some Alphanumerics Are OK Given Heritage and History
This is not to say that alphanumerics can’t create a great image as well. Nissan 350Z (building on a long line of Z cars), Porsche 911, BMW 3-Series, Chrysler 300 (again drawing on the past), and Audi TT come to mind as working well for me. Just use the numbers and letters of the English language with caution.
While I am a proponent of some thought being put into the naming of vehicles, there are a lot of variables to think about when putting a name on the new model. Not just anything will do. What does the name mean when translated to other languages? Does it have negative connotations in our language? Are we infringing on trademarked names? Is it slang for something we don’t want to be associated with? So, yes it does take some thought and real research, unless the company is simply bringing back a cool name from the archives. This can work also – if the name fits appropriately. Don’t put the Camaro or Firebird name on four-cylinder, four-door entry level model. This of course is an extreme example, but the vehicle does need to live up to the name. Some of these names are sacred for those who grew up with these fine automobiles. I’m thinking GTOs, Challengers, Impalas and Thunderbirds to name just a few.
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Some new or revived names that have surfaced that I particularly like are Magnum, Charger, Nomad, Fusion and Solstice. On the other hand, names such as Enclave, Outlook and Milan could have used more work. Some other great names from the 50’s and 60’s have been placed on less than stellar recent models. The plain-looking current GTO doesn’t bring back fond memories of the highly styled GTOs of the 60’s. The current Malibu is best suited for rental fleets and the revived Thunderbird came and went quickly. Chrysler recently revived the Dodge Charger name on a four door sedan amid much controversy raised by purists who would never be caught dead in a four-door Charger. The saving grace for Chrysler recently has been the HEMI engine, which seems to have the “power” to calm all storms. So again, use caution when reviving a sacred name from the archives.
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I applaud the non-luxury brands who for the most part have resisted the temptation to go the easy, but confusing route of alphanumeric nomenclature for their vehicles. Scion and Mazda have gone the way of the luxuries, but still have time to change their ways. I just want to see a little more creativity. There are some great names available out there, I’m sure of it. Work is involved, but it could be well worth the effort.
In the meantime, Luxury Car Company A, B, C or D… if you absolutely need to use the standard string of letters and numbers in naming your next concept car, my two-year old is available to participate in focus groups for a small fee.


  • DG| January 18, 2006 at 6:11 am

    The car company/model name with the most potential was the YUGO. Had they produced a one-seat model, it could have been called the iGO. And, of course, the wagon would have aptly been named the WEGO.

  • Urquhart| January 14, 2006 at 10:58 am

    Absolutely right! Naming is a really tough subject, but the car companies seem to get it wrong as often as they get it right. Imaging Mazda replacing the Miata name with MX-5! Sure, MX-5 has been part of the worldwide MX-5 name for decades, but to drop Miata as part of the “official” name is suicide. Use of heritage names as the blog suggests is a two-edged sword. It takes an auto historian to really understand what the old names stood for. The Monterey/Montego example is excellent. If Ford had people who really understood what these former names stood for, they would not have wasted them on the wrong products.

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