How Do Car Companies Name Their Cars?

What process does a car company follow to name a new model?: originally appeared on Quora: The best answer to any question. Ask a question, get a great answer. Learn from experts and access insider knowledge. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.


Answer by Anthony Jackson, Corporate Recruiter and Freelance Automotive Journalist

The naming of cars is much the same as any other product you would care to buy and a lot of times is heavily influenced by the market in which they are (or are going to be sold). Some names are very market specific, some more worldly and some just plain made up.

Firstly, car companies will work with the marketing guys to find words that reflect the character or perceived character of the car they will ultimately be selling. The nomenclature of the big four in the sixties and seventies is a good example of this in its purest form. Mustang, Challenger, Charger, Thunderbird, Impala and Corvette all generate a sense of power and dynamism closely related to the image of the car they are building.

Literally hundreds of names can be generated in this process until it’s whittled down to some kind of short list. Names may be great but cannot be used for a number of reasons such as:

  • Trademark: Another product may be named the same and heavily protected or another car may have or had it before and the original company still owns the rights. The Dodge iPod would not be allowed and probably not the Ford Transformer either. However car companies can buy the trademark from other companies as VW did with the name Bora from Maserati and I am sure there are countless other examples as well. (VW had a penchant for naming cars after winds for a time, Jetta for jetstream, Bora and Scirocco for winds in the Mediterranean, Passat is German for a trade wind, Polo for Polar winds and the Golf is named after the gulfstream not the ball game).
  • Foreign language considerations: What seems perfectly normal to the English speaking world may mean something completely different in another language. A great example is the urban myth of the Vauxhall and Chevy Nova (completely different cars by the way). It sounds great in English but in Spanish ‘no va’ translates into ‘doesn’t go’. Any Spanish person will tell you there is a massive difference between saying ”no va’ and nova but whether true or not it does demonstrate the considerations in terms of naming for foreign markets.
  • Slang: If you have a car that is reliable, strong, rugged and efficient why not name it after an animal with the same characteristics. How about the Chevrolet Beaver? We’d probably all agree that although apt it is probably not going to go down well with those familiar with the ‘other’ meaning of the word beaver*.

It is no coincidence that carmakers love to name cars after animals like Mustang, Colt, Viper, Jaguar, Ram and Cobra but there are other options. Probably the next best thing to an animal is a place that personifies the character of the car. Think Malibu, Tucson, Ibiza, Monterey, Murano, New Yorker, Cambridge, Seville or Montreal. Some sportier car companies even name them after famous race events or circuits such as Monaco, Monte Carlo, Panamera, Bonneville, Sebring or Daytona.

Another option of course is just to invent a brand new word as a name like Ford did with the Mondeo. It was billed as Ford’s first ‘world car’ meaning it would be sold in all markets virtually unchanged. They started with the French word meaning ‘Le Monde’ which literally means ‘the world’ and put their own spin on
it. Alfa Romeo recently wanted to pay homage to the factories that build their cars in Milan and Turin (Milano and Turino) so they played around with the names and came up with MiTo, with the M and T capitalized to reflect the two cities. There are less successful fabricated names of course such as Veloster from Hyundai and Sportage from Kia. Names I find particularly entertaining are usually one from Japan like the Mazda Bongo Friendee and Honda Life Dunk.

Some manufacturers avoid this whole hassle completely by naming them by number or letter like BMW, Mercedes, Citroen, later Pontiacs and Peugeot. Although even this gets more confusing as time moves on. For example, Mercedes used to have a fairly logical naming system via letters and numbers, usually depicting engine size and the class of vehicle. This seems to be getting a bit less logical now that they have so many models like SL, SLK, SLS, GLK, M-Class and CLS etc.

Also, the numbers now don’t even make any sense. A good example is the recent replacement of the ageing 6.2 liter V8 with a 5.5 liter twin turbo V8. On AMG versions you used to know you had a 6.2 by the badging (S62), logically you would expect this to now be an S55 due to the displacement but they’ve decided to badge it as an S63. I guess consumers must think it is one better than the previous version. BMW are no better either with Z, X, M and even GT. Where a 328i once denoted a 3-Series with a 2.8 liter engine it will now be a turbocharged 2.0 liter.

Anyway, to sum up, there is a long process and many interesting stories about the naming of cars and very rarely do they come about by accident.

A couple of other interesting naming facts:

  • The Porsche 911 was originally going to be called the 901 but Peugeot had already trademarked all the numbers with a zero in the middle and stopped them.
  • The Citroen DS was so called as in French it is pronounced ‘Day-Us’ or Deus which is Latin for God or Deity.
  • The De Tomaso Mangusta was named specifically in response to the Shelby Cobra racing car and was also named after an animal. It’s Italian for Mongoose and was so called as this was one of the only animals in the wild that could actually kill a Cobra.
  • Dino and Edsel are both cars named after the car company’s founder’s sons.
  • The Lotus Elise was named after the granddaughter of the Italian chairman at the time Romano Aritioli.
  • Most car companies themselves are named after their founders like Ford, Rolls-Royce, Austin, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Porsche, Renault, Citroen, Honda, Toyota (Toyoda), DeLorean etc.

*Writing this has got me thinking of a woman innocently commenting on how she spent the whole weekend washing and waxing her Beaver. Not to mention when she walks into the garage to get the oil filter changed in her Beaver.

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