Luxury car names are a numbers game
What’s in a name — especially if it is a mix of letters and numbers?
Makers of luxury and near-luxury vehicles are leading the way in complex names, choosing and frequently changing the alphanumeric badges on many of their models.
They’re not doing it just to spin the publicity wheel and keep models fresh in buyers’ minds. Automakers ranging from Cadillac to Mercedes-Benz are realigning their model designations to establish a common language in the linguistically complex global market.
While it may seem confusing, alphanumeric designations help buyers — and sellers — identify vehicle classifications. Mercedes-Benz “G” classification encompasses its family of sport utility vehicles and crossovers and comes from the word Gelaendewagen, which loosely translates to all-terrain vehicle.
Brand names such as Acura, Infiniti, Lincoln, BMW and others precede the alphanumerics and carry more weight. This increases focus on the master brand for communication efficiencies, says Susan Broniarczyk, a marketing professor at the University of Texas.
“Most common words are already trademarked and so automotive companies would need to resort to fictitious names (Kodak), add or change a letter (Lyft),” Broniarczyk says.
While the alphanumerics that follow the brand are a distinct language, there is some overlap.
Cadillac phased out the XTS full-size sedan for the CT6. CT models stand for Cadillac Touring, followed by a digit that indicates the model’s position in the range. Like many luxury automakers, Cadillac is applying the “X” designation to a new breed of crossovers.
The iconic American brand is not new to this kind of naming, but like the competition it has shuffled the deck to meet its lineup needs. It’s also running out of prestigious-sounding names.
Cadillac will launch 11 new products between now and 2020, General Motors spokesman David Caldwell says.
“Many are completely new entries, some are new versions of existing ones,” Caldwell says.
The 2017 Cadillac XT5 replaces the earlier STX crossover. A smaller XT3 is planned. Anyone would be able to determine which is likely to be larger and more premium, he says. Cadillac’s supersize Escalade SUV will remain Escalade due its name recognition.
A couple of years ago Infiniti adopted Q and QX to identify its cars and utility vehicles. The first Infiniti bowed in 1989 as the 1990 Q45. Over the years Nissan’s luxury brand wandered through the alphabet co-opting E, F, G, I, J and M before returning to Q.
“We wanted to expand our line, especially at the upper end,” says Infiniti spokesman Kyle Bazemore. When the decision to simplify names was reached, many letters were already in use, he says.
Infiniti passenger cars now begin with Q followed by an engine size, though the number does not describe the engine in liters or cubic inches. QX refers to its crossover utility vehicles.
Letter-number names simplify marketing and add predictability, says Lopo Rego, an associate professor of marketing at Indiana University.
“Customers may perceive strong attributes in a complex name,” Rego says. Perceived quality is what matters, he adds.
One of the most complex naming systems belongs to BMW.
“Ours are niche cars,” explains Wayne Youngblood, client adviser at BMW of Rochester Hills in Shelby Township. Youngblood remembers in the early 1980s selling BMWs in the 3-, 5-, 6- and 7-Series.
Those series still exist, but they have been joined by the 1-, 2- and 4-Series, a family of X utility vehicles and now electric and plug-in hybrid models.
There are so many configurations, each with its distinct numbers and letters, that it’s impossible to condense them into, say, a 3-Series sedan — which, as a coupe, has become a 4-Series.
Letters precede and follow numbers. One of the letters at this point remains standard: x equals all-wheel drive; uppercase X refers to the BMW’s family of utility vehicles.
What is an X5 xDrive40e iPerformance? It’s a thing.
X still stands for the X family of utility vehicles; 5 is from the midsize 5-Series family. Meanwhile, xDrive refers to BMW’s all-wheel-drive system; 40e had indicated BMW’s new plug-in hybrid drivetrain until March, when BMW added “iPerformance” to describe its plug-ins.
Jonathan Griffin is the answer man, or “Genius,” at BMW of Rochester Hills BMW encourages its dealers to have a staff Genius on board to answer complicated customer questions and help them personalize their cars.
“We can spend two hours or more with a single customer,” he says, adding that customers often leave the dealership, consider the information, then return to talk about the purchase itself.
BMW’s long names “may confuse buyers but they make BMWs unique,” says Rego.
Like the Cadillac Escalade, Lincoln nameplates such as Continental and Navigator have significant name recognition for customers and even in the general knowledge of those less familiar with the brand, says Lincoln spokesman Sam Locricchio.
Lincoln uses three-letter MK initials for several of its models, except for the revived Continental.
“It wasn’t pure nostalgia for (using) Continental,” he says. “Many of the younger luxury buyers today don’t have the deep-rooted knowledge about what Continental was.”
He says the 2017 version marries history with the latest technology.
There are more than 300 nameplates on the road and it’s only the tip of the iceberg, says George Peterson at AutoPacific in Tustin, California. Expect huge proliferation in the future, he says.
Streamlined alphanumerics help organize the brand for consumers — and employees — though not without a learning curve.
Peterson says the additions and subtractions in alphanumerics had even corporate spokespeople confused at auto show introductions. “Executives couldn’t keep up with the names,” he says.