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Bankrate's 2007 New Car Guide
The auto world's in a period of great change. How will it affect you?
What's in a (car) name?
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Of course, sometimes even the best intentions go awry. When Pontiac came out with a crossover SUV with a design that left many scratching their heads, it didn't help that it had been named Aztek. Critics panned both the design and the name, a play on the name of an ancient Mexican civilization. Forbes deemed it among the worst car names in the industry. Discontinued a few years ago, the car is generally considered a flop.

The jury is still out on other creative names, such as Touareg, Volkswagen's first sortie into the SUV market. Touareg (pronounced TWA- reg) appears to be inspired by the nomadic "tuareg" tribe of the Sahara -- a strong, highly adaptable people who could thrive in hostile environments. But some researchers say the tuareg tribes were slave holders and yet others say the word implies a people "abandoned by God."

A name may not make or break the success of a vehicle or a brand, but it sometimes gains traction -- and longevity -- that few could anticipate. "Edsel" and "failure" often go hand in hand, for example.

Letters, numbers, and meaning
To circumvent the thorny problem of a bad car name, some companies have avoided the issue altogether by using only a combination of letters and numbers to identify a car: Volvo, for example, offers an S-series of sedans (S40, S60 and S80); a C-series of coupes (C30 and C70) a V series of wagons (V50 and V70) and an XC-series for cross country vehicles (XC70 and XC90).

"The idea is for it to be easy for our customers to know exactly what Volvo car they are buying," says Volvo spokesman James Hope. "We are Swedish. It's in our blood to be simple."

Scion's model names are a slight variation on that theme, offering the xA, xB, and tC. While the letters themselves don't have much of a back story (the second letter represents the order in which the cars were introduced), the capitalization is a bit of a departure, says Takahashi. She says the use of the convention was "a means of standing out from the typical alpha or alphanumeric naming, where all letters are capitalized."

While this strategy ensures that there will be no bad associations with the name, it offers a different potential pitfall: anonymity. "If you walk into a dealer's showroom, and a salesperson says 'Let me take you over to a QY5,' and you say, 'What's a QY5?' then that's an indication of failure," says Meyers. "If you can't remember it, then it didn't have its intended effect."

Of course, while many cars try to invoke particular reactions among buyers -- the Chevrolet Volt, a hybrid concept car, suggests electricity, environmental friendliness and a new way of transportation in the 21st century -- some names get by on the sheer dint of longevity. The Camry name might mean nothing to American buyers (it's a phonetic transcription of the Japanese word for "crown), but its solid performance and reliability has made it a well-known name in the industry.

While naming a car might seem to be fraught with peril, Meyers puts the challenge in perspective: "It's important to be appealing. But as long as you can sell the cars to the people you want to sell them to, that's enough."

-- Posted: Aug. 2, 2007
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