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Santa Barbara, California – Premium autos these days are an alphabet soup of confusing vehicles names. There’s the QX60, XC90, RX450 and RDX from Infiniti, Volvo, Lexus and Acura respectively. Cadillac is changing its alphanumeric lineup from ATS, CTS and XTS to CT4, CT5 and CT6. BMW’s compact lineup alone offers a 320i, 330i X-Drive, 440i, M3 and M4. And Mercedes now offers a performance SUV called the AMG GLC63 S Coupe.

It’s enough to make your brain hurt. So Lincoln has shelved its MK-based soup and moved back to good ol' proper names. Say hello to the Nautilus, a brand new name for the former MKX midsize SUV on sale later this month.

The Nautilus is the latest entry in a four-ute, two-sedan lineup for the legendary Ford luxury brand. Rookie Nautilus joins some familiar, trusty names that Lincoln has dusted off to represent its top-of-the-line sedan (Continental) and large, three-row SUV (the Aviator). The entry-level MKC SUV will reportedly be replaced by the all-new Corsair, while the brand’s top-of-the-line Navigator never went away.

“Vehicle names made more sense for us to distinguish ourselves,” said Lincoln Global Director of Sales and Service Robert Parker. “Because at the end of the day, we get data back, and the data was signaling to us that people were confused.”

Save for ultra-luxury brands like Rolls Royce and Lamborghini, the only full-line premium brands to name their vehicles are Lincoln, Alfa Romeo (Giulia, Stelvio, for example), Range Rover (Discovery, Evoque), and Maserati (Ghibili, Levante). The newest brands in luxury — Tesla (Model 3, Model X) and Genesis (G70, G80) — have both chosen alphanumerics.

Alphanumeric naming convention has been driven by German automakers. And as their models dominated international markets, other automakers followed, seeking the same clean, technical brand identity that alphanumerics convey.

Concise badges with letters and numbers also translate well across different languages and cultures, industry insiders say.

“One of the primary rationales in going alphanumeric is sometimes when you have an organic name you have to figure out what it means in other languages,” says auto analyst Sam Abuelsamid of Navigant Research. "There have been instances when it had an unsavory meaning in another language. Like Buick Lacrosse which was a slang term in Canadian/French."

Among mainstream brands, the Chevy Nova, Mazda LaPuta, and Kia Stinger also ran into translation issues. Nova means "it doesn't go" in Spanish. Laputa translated as "whore." And in Britain, "stinger" can refer to — well, ahem, look it up.

Lincoln began using the alphanumeric MK badges — short for "Mark" — on its vehicles beginning in 2007. But the nomenclature failed to resonate.

"Lincoln was one of the most confusing (nomenclatures) of all the brands. Everything started with MK and then some random third letter that had no rhyme or reason to it," said Abuelsamid. "People didn’t know the difference between and MKC and MKX and MKT. So going back to names will be more memorable to people."

Lincoln says the journey-themed names also represent the brand’s journey to a new place in luxury — away from apex-carving, Nürburgring-tested, German-benchmarked athletes and toward an effortless driving experience that pampers passengers.

Lincoln calls it “quiet luxury.” The Nautilus takes its cues from the iconic, three-row Navigator, a majestic land yacht with optional 30-way massaging seats, sumptuous digital displays, and cavernous interior that has everything but third-row Jacuzzi.

The Navigator — like Cadillac’s Escalade — never succumbed to the brand’s alphanumeric naming strategy. Now remade for 2018 to rave reviews in the automotive press (and hot sales for its upscale Black Label trim), the Navigator is the perfect patron for a family of cars with fresh names.

“There is a lot of continuity with Navigator,” smiles Parker. “That was a big opportunity for us in 2012 when we really put together a 10-year strategy. The details (of how you interact with the Navigator and Nautilus) bring continuity in appearance and functionality that it important to people.”

The Nautlius comes new standard with a 245-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and an optional, 335-horse 2.7-liter V-6 mill. But such specs seem as unimportant to the Lincoln as technical, alphanumeric badges.

Instead, Lincoln wants the Nautilus judged on different standards like 22-way, massaging front thrones or a vehicle “handshake” that welcomes the driver with a lit, Lincoln logo welcome mat projected on the ground.

“We pay attention to details. The knobs, the leather, the detente into the switches is all about creating an environment that you look forward to after a hard day’s work,” says Parker. “That encapsulates what the Lincoln brand stands for. And then the names drill down on it."

Picking new names was an extensive process, but at least translation challenges were limited.

"Lincoln is not a brand generally available globally — it’s sold in North American and China," said Abuelsamid. "With just those two it will be easier to find names that don’t have problematic meanings."

Once his team settled on a unifying principle of journey and travel, Parker and his team drew inspiration for its naming strategy both internally and from an outside company with success in non-automotive naming strategies.

"You could a write a book about choosing names," he said. There are names that are important to us — that are important to our history. Continental was one of those names that started back in the late ‘30s. We retained it as part of our portfolio. Our theme inspired some of the contrived names like Nautilus."

Then Lincoln tried the names out on focus groups. Audiences were told what age range a particular vehicle was meant to appeal to, then given a list of names, and a picture of the vehicle. 

Which names best applied to the vehicle?

"For some of us it was that way with our kids," chuckles Lincoln's Parker. "You had a short list of names but you wanted to see the kid before you picked the name. Cars are the same way — you really have to see the car before you land on the name."

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.

 

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