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What’s In A Name? Plenty, For A New Car

By Aaron Crowe

William Shakespeare

For some things, such as a rose, what we call it really doesn’t matter. As William Shakespeare put it, “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

For automakers, unfortunately, that doesn’t hold true when naming a new car. A name can be a good first impression, or a bad one, that can do a lot more to define the car than any of its other features.

Cars were the first consumer product to pick up on the idea that they’re an extension of the buyer and showcase the owner’s ego, says Steve Cecil, a verbal branding professional in California who has helped name cars and other products. A memorable name was the best way to build on that projection of the buyer’s personality.

Remember the Ford Pinto? One Spanish translation of “pinto” is “horse,” which is probably what Ford wanted. But in Brazilian, pinto is slang for “tiny male genitals.”

Ford did get the naming right with the Mustang, giving drivers the image of a wild, free and powerful horse, Cecil says. “When you hear ‘Mustang,’ you think an adult, male horse,” he says.

It was the perfect name for the car, and came at a time — 1964 — when naming products could be as simple as picking a common item or mountaintop. The GMC Sierra is named after a unique mountain range, but finding a distinctive, memorable brand isn’t as easy as it used to be.

“It’s hard to brand a thing around the real world these days,” says Cecil, who came up with the name “Crosstrek” for Subaru after the company told him it wanted a name that audibly mimicked its Subaru Outback. It wanted a unique name that wasn’t so strange that people didn’t get it, he says.

“Naming a car is the ultimate prize for a namer,” Cecil says. “There’s very few things as satisfying as seeing a vehicle going down the road with a name in chrome that I put on it.”

Car namers don’t want to confuse consumers by giving a car the same or similar name to an existing product, he says. The Fusion is a popular brand for Ford, but it’s also the name of a popular razor blade.

A car that does a name play well is the Smart car by Mercedes. The line of mini electric cars and mini green cars not only wants consumers to think of its cars as “smart,” but as fashionable. The Smart car was designed, Cecil says, by the company Swatch — the maker of designer watches — to be a fashion accessory, and produced by Mercedes. “Swatch” plus “Mercedes” plus “Art” equates to “Smart.”

At one time, the head of Chevrolet asked the staff not to refer to its cars by the shorter name of “Chevy,” Cecil says. Getting rid of the nickname didn’t catch on, which was probably a good thing, he says. Chevy is a household name that has stuck around.

“When your name turns up in the lyrics of songs, you don’t change that,” Cecil says.

In the legends of naming cars, don’t fall for the urban legend that General Motors, which makes Chevrolets, failed with the Chevy Nova in Latin America because “no va” translates to “it doesn’t go” in Spanish. That translation is partly accurate, but GM sold plenty of Novas in Latin America.

The Mitsubishi Pajero, however, does translate to an offensive slang word, according to Anthony Bianco, a travel writer. Pajero means “wanker” in Spanish. In most Spanish speaking countries, the car has been rebranded as the Montiero, which Bianco says roughly translates to “Mountain Warrior.” That sounds a lot better than “wanker.”

Aaron Crowe is a journalist who covers the auto industry for CheapCarInsurance.net.