2015 featured several high profile revivals of major film franchises. Both Mad Max: Fury Road and Star Wars: The Force Awakens succeeded because George Miller and J.J. Abrams understood what ingredients made the earlier entries so compelling. The teams behind the latest Fantastic Four and Terminator movies did precisely the opposite.
The auto industry has also had its fair share of revivals over the last couple of years, with similarly mixed results. After all, each model is essentially its own brand, and subsequent generations can be viewed the very same way we view movie sequels. Does the newest entry live up to what came before? Does it respect the spirit of its predecessor, and did it contain some new elements to keep things interesting? These are make-or-break questions for automotive nameplates, and poor decisions can ruin the legacy of a name forever.
My inspiration for this piece came from two things: the North American International Auto Show and William Stopford’s excellent series covering the death of nameplates under the General Motors banner.
More specifically, Chrysler’s new minivan got me wondering about the revival of old names. If you thought the vehicle pictured above was simply a new generation of the Town and Country, you may want to brace yourself: it’s now going to be called the Pacifica.
Did you just spit out your coffee or beverage of choice? That almost happened to me when I first read about FCA’s latest people mover. Barry Koch neatly summarized the saga of the first generation Pacifica about a year ago, and William covered the saga of this storied nameplate several months later. The Pacifica never really lived up to anyone’s expectations, as it was an odd duck that couldn’t cut it as a luxury crossover or a mainstream one. Poor build quality didn’t help either.
This makes FCA’s decision to resurrect the name a bit confusing. Although the Pacifica sold in somewhat respectable numbers, its customer base has certainly moved on after eight years. Plus, if they do want to come back to the brand, would want to by purchasing a minivan? There is a real risk Chrysler might be simultaneously alienating former (or current?) Pacifica owners and shoppers looking for the Town and Country.
But there is a chance this gamble will actually pay off. It’s not a coincidence both vehicles are named after an extremely exclusive city right off the Pacific Ocean. Just like its predecessor, this new minivan is aimed towards the luxury buyer, and away from the bargain basement transaction prices that gets you into a Dodge Caravan, which most certainly affects the Town and Country. FCA wants a minivan that isn’t viewed as the value leader in the segment, and reviving a name with luxurious overtones could work out. In any event, Car and Driver’s 2003 verdict of the Pacifica as “A thoughtful blend of space and style without the minivan stigma” is now extremely ironic.
Reviving old names isn’t a new phenomenon, of course. Dodge decided to use the Dart moniker for its compact sedan, a name which had last been seen on a new vehicle in 1976. Whether or not that had an impact on sales is anyone’s guess – its performance in the segment since its introduction has been mediocre at best – never posting numbers above the 100,000 mark. That’s likely due to its tepid reception upon hitting the market in 2012, when the car was criticized for its unrefined powertrain and subpar interior quality, while being recognized for its decent ride, appealing proportions, and functional infotainment system. None of its shortcomings are terribly damning, but consumers have clearly flocked to other automakers compact offerings instead. Could things have been different?
When the Dart was first announced several years ago, a substantial number of automotive armchair quarterbacks wondered why FCA neglected to call it the Neon. After all, the Neon bowed out only several years prior to the introduction of the Dart. What exactly, were the downsides of using it? Millennials can likely still recognize the nameplate today; go back four years and its even plausible that a number of them were in the market to replace their aging Neon with something new.
That obviously didn’t happen, and instead we got a nameplate last used on a car sold new during the Nixon administration. Only Baby Boomers could have an affinity towards that name – but were they the target demographic in this case? That is the only way the use of the Dart name makes sense. In any event, its far more likely individuals who recognize the Dart name from decades past were shopping for a Grand Cherokee, or a 200, or a Journey. Anything but a compact sedan. I don’t know if using the Neon name would have garnered more sales for Chrysler, but there is no way it could have hurt.
The decision not to resurrect the Neon name is even more perplexing given the success of the Challenger. The Challenger name has almost instant recognition among Baby Boomers, and its abundantly clear the muscle car was built primarily to cater to that demographic. It arrived at the right time; several years after the Mustang regained its former glory with the 2005 redesign and a year before the Camaro returned to showrooms. That the coupe is still relevant eight years later is a testament not only to its robust powertrain choices but its decades long heritage as well.
Which brings us to the last case study: The new Lincoln Continental. We last saw the Continental back in 2002, when it was based off the underpinnings of the Taurus. Fitting then, that this new iteration employs the CD4 platform, as the architecture premiered first on Ford’s current mid-size sedan, the Fusion. We’ll find out later this year out if the new sedan can match the refinement and luxuriousness of its competition while setting itself apart from the Fusion and MKZ.
Even if the Continental turns out to be a sales dud, bringing the name back was a smart move. The moniker brings a lot of heritage to the table, although I’m going to argue that doesn’t matter at all. Aside from its rich history, Continental defiantly bucks the current trend of numbered or alphanumeric branding that is far too prevalent on vehicles with an MSRP above $50,000. CT6, G90, S90, Q60, RX 350, E-350, C-3PO, BB-8. Most of those are actual names of vehicles either currently on sale or confirmed to hit the market shortly. My point is this: if nothing else, having a real name automatically establishes the Continental as the car that is separate from the herd.
It’s a smart move, especially due to Lincoln’s uncertain future. Lincoln isn’t doing badly – the brand increased sales by seven percent last year – but it is on shaky ground. That makes the choice to bring back the Continental an easy one: at this point, Ford doesn’t have much to lose.
Automotive revivals present a dose of risk and reward. If an automaker understands the demographic that would likely favor the return of a discontinued nameplate, or if there is nothing to lose, it makes sense to bring a name back from the dead. Things become tricky when an old moniker replaces an already well known nameplate however, and I guess we’ll have to wait until the new Pacifica hits showroom floors to see if the change creates any sort of lasting impact. Are there any other rules that need to be followed when playing the name game? When is the right time for an automaker to revive an old name?