AMC Gremlin
Mitsubishi Pajero
Ford Probe
Volkswagen Touareg
AMC Gremlin, Mitsubishi Pajero, Ford Probe, Volkswagen Touareg. Click image to enlarge

Article by Simon Hill

Naming cars has always been a tricky business – manufacturers want a moniker that’s easy to remember, implies good things about their product and translates well into different languages. So why do they keep screwing it up so thoroughly?

There are some famously classic bad car names like the AMC Gremlin and the Chevy Nova – Gremlin for obvious reasons and Nova because, the legend says, it sounds like “doesn’t go” in Spanish, making the car a bit of a non-starter in Latin American markets (not to mention large swaths of California). Some nitpickers like to point out that this is all poppycock because “no va” is a bit of a stretch, a bad pun, like reading the English word “notable” as “no table,” and nova has the same astronomical meaning in Spanish as in English. I’d just like to point out that the Chevy Notable would actually be a pretty good car name.

Then there’s the more modern knee-slappers like the Mitsubishi Pajero and the Ford Probe. Who thought those names were good ideas? Sure, a Pajero is a type of cat in Patagonia, but for Spanish speaking people it’s akin to driving a Wanker or a Masturbator. Frankly, I’d hate to imagine where a Pajero driver might park their Probe.

These days I think manufacturers do spend a little more effort coming up with names devoid of unintentionally rude alternate meanings, but often that means the names are simply devoid of any real meaning, and often unpronounceable to boot. I mean, what the hell is Huayra, and how do you pronounce it? If this sort of oddness was limited to Italian supercars that would be one thing, but even mass-market manufacturers aren’t immune: just think of Volkswagen and its Touareg, a name so difficult to pronounce the company made a joke of it in their advertising. (At least it has a meaning though, something about some African tribe that rides around the desert on camels or giraffes. I think.)

Still, none of this really compares to the alphanumeric soup currently swilling out from the luxury and performance marques. BMW is perhaps the leader in all this. Its numbering system used to make sense when it was just the 3 Series, 5 Series, 6 Series and 7 Series, with the last two digits signifying engine displacement. A 320i was a small 2.0-litre car. A 530i was a medium-sized 3.0-litre car. A 735i was a big 3.5-litre car. Simple enough. When the company substituted the 8 Series for the 6 Series and started fudging the engine displacements it didn’t mess things up too badly, nor did adding the 1 Series. Small number, smaller car, we can keep that in our heads, right? Then they added crossover versions of the 3 and 5 Series, calling those X3 and the X5. Or was that before the 1 Series? It doesn’t matter, X is easy to relate to cross-country – X-country – so it still sort-of made sense, even when they added the X6. Then they split the 1 Series lineup into four-door 1 Series – which you can only get in Europe unless it’s an X1 – and two-door 2 Series. And they likewise split the 3 Series into four-door 3 Series and two-door 4 Series, unless you count the four-door 4 Series Gran Coupé, which isn’t  a coupe because it has four doors, and should rightfully be called a 3 Series. And what’s with the 2 Series Active Tourer? It’s tiny. It has four doors. Why is it not a 1 Series? It all does nothing except give me a headache, which being a BMW headache is a one-Tylenol headache, unless it’s an Gran Coupé headache, in which case I’ll need to take two Tylenol and call the marketing department in the morning.

Buick LaCrosseBMW 4 Gran CoupeVolvo V40
Buick LaCrosse, BMW 4 Gran Coupe, Volvo V40. Click image to enlarge

Speaking of headaches, I suppose this is a good time to talk about Infiniti’s new naming scheme. Infiniti Q and QX. First off, isn’t the Q an Audi product? Or a Star Trek villain or something? [He’s not a villain, he’s a comic relief omnipotent being… –Ed.] But more to the point, by slapping a Q and a couple of other alphanumeric characters onto all of its vehicles, Infiniti hasn’t created a naming convention so much as a confusion. Which I guess makes sense, since the marque always wanted to be competitive with BMW. My mother-in-law says the Infiniti names all sound like mathematical formulas to her, although I find that a bit ironic because she drives a Toyota Matrix, and a matrix is something you use to solve linear algebra problems.

Mitsubishi Mirage
Mitsubishi Mirage. Click image to enlarge

Actually, a matrix might be quite useful to explain the difference between Lincoln’s MKZ, MKX, MKT, MKS and MKC. The rows could be for crossovers, the columns for cars, and the “M”s and “K”s all cancel out. Easy!

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Some car names aren’t bad so much for what they are, as for what people accidentally call them. My aunt took to calling her car a “Volly” because every time she tried to pronounce the correct name she ended up saying “my Vulva.” And a friend at a party recently told me his wife had bought a new Hyundai Ebola. Umm, yeah… remind me not to catch a ride with her!

There’s plenty more out there, too: The Ford Flex (is that like overcooked broccoli or something? Or resistance to the Probe?), Buick LaCrosse (you gotta’ love Buick for sticking to their guns on this one, despite it meaning a wanker – or is that a pajero? – in Quebec), [how about the Juke – did you know that means cockroach in Hebrew? –Ed.], the now-ceased Chrysler Crossfire (you wouldn’t want to get caught in it!), the Mitsubishi Mirage (you only think you bought a car, it’s actually a riding lawnmower with a Cozy Coupe roof added), the unmourned Chevrolet Citation (sort of the North American equivalent of the Toyota Traffic Ticket), the Hummer (although I’m sure this had many gangster’s molls quite excited until they realized their boyfriend wasn’t actually going to give them a hummer, but rather just a big hulking SUV).

The list goes on, but I’ll end with one of my personal faves because it’s one I own: It’s not just a van. It’s more than a wagon. It’s a Vanagon! Clearly, with a name that brilliant, Volkswagen didn’t need to expend any further effort to stave off the Dodge/Chrysler minivan competition. Oh, wait…

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