Industry Squawk: Let’s Play The Name Game


The automotive world used to be a simple place.

Luxury cars either had two things. An American name. Or a European alphanumeric designation.

Continental, Deville, Brougham, Park Avenue, Imperial. These were quintessential American names that gave forth an all-American luxury experience.

On the flip side were those crafty Europeans. Mercedes had a C, E, S and SL. Audi had stupendous numbers that could go all the way up  to 5000. BMW put their numbers first, and Jaguar put their numbers last. Saab and Peugeot did their part of making their special cars an S, STI, or an SPG. But no one cared too much about them.

The world of luxury names had an order to it. Numbers and letters were decidedly European. Names were American.

Then the Lexus LS400 came along and screwed it up for everyone.



Lexus put forth a $35,000 car in 1989 that steamrolled competitor cars that were nearly twice the price here in the United States.


The LS400 was such a runaway success that within a few years Mercedes flipped their designations from number first to letter first.


The letter first trend for Mercedes was here to stay with the 10 year old 190E finally morphing into an all-new C220 in 1993. Followed in the same year by the E-Class and S-Class. By the late-90’s, nearly every Mercedes model had flipped their number to the back of the letter.

Why? Perhaps because that was the fashionable trend at the time. This marketing groupthink would represent just a small trickle to the flood that would soon come. Like all things disco, Polo, and Bon Jovi, the early success of the originals would soon be followed by a painful, never-ending series of poseurs and pretenders.

For luxury cars that meant nearly 20 years of mindless acronyms and alphanumerics.

The Lexus LS begat ES, which brought forth SC, which then gave forth GS, and by that time many stopped trying to figure out what a Lexus acronym actually meant.


But that didn’t stop Lexus. Soon there was an IS, HS, RX, GX, LX, LF-A, HS and six more acronyms that collectively codified the brand into a big fat WTF.

Lexus was not the only one drinking from the poisoned punchbowl of model mummification.


Acura had already ordained a Legend which was truly worth of the name. Along with an Integra that was always among the more rewarding cars to buy and keep.

Acura circa 2009 - Does not include the well-known ZDX and RLX models, or the upcoming NSX.

Acura circa 2009 – Does not include the well-known ZDX and RLX models, or the upcoming NSX.

But some social malcontents within Acura decided that such appealing names were overshadowing the brand in much the same way as Cher routinely overshadowed Sonny. A satanic cult of three letter designations soon followed to the point where SLX, MDX, IL-X, and TSX gave Acura an identity that was SOL.


Infiniti already had the alphanumeric groove down with the G20, I30, and Q45 by the early-90’s. Which was fine because only the last one of those vehicles was remotely competitive.

Then Q sales nosedived thanks to a bland 2nd generation, and a “Do they still make that?” final generation. The demise of the Q led to the rise of the G, JX, and M.  The hope being that Infiniti would be equal to a BMW in drag.


Now Infiniti is re-investing in seven brand new Q models.  Will it be worth it?

Lincoln and Mercury - Back In The Good Old Days Of 1979

Lincoln and Mercury – Back In The Good Old Days Of 1979


The Americans, overrun with MBA and PhD graduates, followed suit by early 2000. Pretty soon Sevilles received an honorary CTS. Devilles were given a DTS, Marks bowed down to a short-lived LS, and Zephyrs evolved into an MKZ. Or was it an MDX? Or an MRX? By the end of the decade American luxury found itself with European lipstick and Japanese (mostly Toyota) longings.

Everyone now could compete with everyone else in a luxury world where names no longer mattered.

So what do we have today? Confusion. Over 40 models given acronyms and alphanumerics that collectively have less brand equity than a box of Corn Flakes.

When everyone does the same thing, brand equity suffers. Even an entire class of vehicles can suffer the ill effects of ‘me too’ names.  The Lexus LS no longer sells well and arguably, no flagship model laden with a glorified serial number in North America has a strong showing these days.

Names still matter to many of us. If you asked 95 plus percent of the average folks on the street a name of a Cadillac model, you know what name would come right at the top?


Escalade. Everybody knows that an Escalade is a big, vulgar, enormous SUV with all the luxury and pimpin’ style you could ever want in a quintessential American machine. The CTS may have been a better selling vehicle than the Escalade for most of the last ten years. But when it comes to name recognition, saying “I have an Escalade.” will make most non-enthusiasts recognize that you’re talking about an SUV while saying, “I have a CTS.” can conjure random images of a GPS or maybe even an STD.


A Lexus is still… an LS400. Some of us may have admired an ES that was little more than a glorified Camry. Or recommended an RX that arguably set the trend of a modern day crossover.

But the rest of the line-up means what exactly? To who?

Lexus obviously needs names at this point to identify their progeny in much the same way as the Octomom needs names for her brood. Lexus produces too much and needs to either give their models real names, or send them to the land of the dodo.

And Lexus is far from alone in that image driven quagmire.

The same is true for Acura.

Damn it Acura! Bring back the Integra, Legend, and think up a couple of names that would embody the virtues of your SUV models. Along with that sparsely equipped, near $30,000 car you have sold for nearly a decade now.

What is it called? I don’t even know what it is, and I sell these vehicles for a living. If your crowning achievement is a Legend, then give your cars an identity that fits that vision.

Give… them… names… ASAP. Please. Real names.

Forget about a Lincoln MKX SUV. Call it a Canyonero if you must.

Give them names so that car shoppers don’t have to read the serial numbers on the back of their vehicles to tell other people what it actually is.

Acronyms and alphanumerics should be for European luxury vehicles. Nobody else! This goes especially for non-luxury vehicles.


Mazda… sells Miatas…. not an MX-5.


A real MX is an LGM-118 Intercontinental Ballistic Missile that comes loaded with multi-kiloton nuclear bombs and was usually targeted squarely at the USSR. Not a $25,000 fashionable convertible targeted at the nearest Starbucks.

Scion…. should sell a Celica or a Supra. Not an FR-S. Those initials can be any one of thirty things listed on Wikipedia with the Scion FR-S ranked dead last in that order.

Pontiac… no longer sells anything because nobody figured out what the G in G3, G5, G6, G8 actually meant. A painful lesson that a multitude of other brands need to reconsider if they are to maintain a recognizable model name for the non-enthusiast.

So what do you think? Should American and Japanese luxury models be given names?  Or should the alphanumeric alphabet soup that is the US car market devolve into a nonsensical emulsion of initials and numbers that mean nothing?

What would be your solution?