Naming In The News

A GT By Any Other Name

What's in a suffix? A manufacturer's marketing whim, or something deeper — something more psychologically deliberate? Kaila Colbin attempts to find out.

By Kaila Colbin

In 1973, the marketing department at Mitsubishi screwed up royally. Aiming to capture the strength and stealth of the Argentine Pampas Cat, they named their new four-wheel-drive the Pajero. Sadly, the word "pajero" in Spanish is far more frequently understood to mean "wanker" than "wild cat." This unfortunate choice of name meant that, despite its heritage, the vehicle couldn't actually be sold in Argentina, or Spain, or any other Hispanic country until it was rechristened as the Montero.

Opting not to learn from someone else's mistake, thirty years later the folks at GM came up with a new name for the Canadian-built Buick Regal: the Buick Lacrosse. They should have done their homework first. According to Stew Low, a GM Canada spokesman, in Quebec youth culture "lacrosse" is a slang term that means a couple of things, either to masturbate or "I just got screwed," or "I just got taken."

Clearly the folks in marketing had something else in mind when they came up with these names, which led us at Top Gear NZ to wonder what's going on in their heads. It also led us to question whether the rationale was equally shady for the alphabet soup suffixes manufacturers attach to car models, letters like LX, D, and V. I set out to understand where these appellations came from and what they're supposed to mean.

To begin my investigation, I had a chat with William Lozito, President of the brand name consultancy Strategic Name Development. For thirteen years, Strategic Name Development has been helping companies like GE and American Express create product and brand names that work linguistically and phonetically.

More relevant to my inquiry, however, was the fact that SND had done research on every consonant in the alphabet — serious scientific research. Their objective was to find out what inherent associations people have with each letter.

"X and Z are the holy grails of consonants," says William. "They are perceived as innovative, masculine, and complex. Whether they always had that reputation or whether they achieved it through innovative products carrying those letters, I couldn't tell you — it's a bit of a chicken and egg situation."

"L, F, W, and V, on the other hand, are considered to be feminine letters, which makes sense if you think about it: L for Lady, F for Female, W for Woman..." he trailed off, leaving me to wonder what V could possibly stand for.

From a psychological perspective, certain letters are clearly more desirable than others. Car manufacturers, however, have been using letter suffixes since before the Model T, and I doubt that Henry Ford, who famously said, "They can get the car in any colour they like, so long as it's black," gave a hoot about consumer research.

Automotive suffixes have been used for everything from specifying features to indicating the model year. With so much confusion, most consumers have given up on trying to comprehend the hidden meanings of the letters. According to Atul Patel, this is probably a smart move on the consumers' part. Arul has been in the auto industry for more than a decade, during which time he served a stint as Feature Naming Committee Chairperson for GM. More than anyone, he knows that suffixes aren't always what they seem.

"GT automatically connotes sportiness," Arul confirms. "But what has frequently happened is that automotive marketers put the 'GT' name on a basic car with just a spoiler and nice wheels. It's still a basic car and this leads to people not giving the suffix much merit." He's got a point. The fact that Porsche Carerra and a Toyota Corolla both come in GT versions doesn't mean they hang out in the same pub.

To get to the bottom of the matter, I decided to conduct my own research. Unlike SND's scientific study, mine consisted of asking six friends to respond to the question, "What do these automotive suffixes mean to you?"

The results were telling. While most of my mates knew that GT meant Gran Turismo or Grand Touring, only one understood that a Grand Touring car is supposed to be one that you can drive from London to Monaco on a whim. A GT should be fast yet comfortable and able to handle long distances, but my interviewees gave answers ranging from, "The flash version of a car," to "A Playstation game."

While GT has been used by everyone from Fiat to Ferrari, other appellations are brand-specific and intended to be indicative of features or specifications. BMW follows this methodology, with "X" meaning "All-Wheel Drive" and 'D' meaning "Diesel."

Certain suffixes are designed just to sound good, taking advantage of those inherent letter associations. Atul is dismissive of this tactic. "DX for a Honda Accord doesn't mean anything; SES didn't mean anything for a Ford Taurus as far as most people know. When I was at (US domestic GM division) Saturn, we tried to be logical: VUE FWD for the 4 cylinder front wheel drive and VUE V6 AWD for the V6 all wheel drive. Since I have left the company, they're going with suffixes like XE and XR, which mean nothing to the consumer as far as I can tell."

Most manufacturers use a custom suffix to identify their high-performance tuner models. Subaru's got STI (Subaru Tenica International), Toyota has TRD (Toyota Racing Development) and Honda has HFP (Honda Factory Performance).

Of course, with a three-letter suffix, you do run the risk of alternative definitions. SVT may stand for Special Vehicle Team at Ford, but to a doctor the letters indicate ventricular tachycardia, a medical condition in which the heart beats excessively fast. My guess is that the people at Ford knew this and were trying to make the claim that your heart would beat faster if you even looked at one of their cars. Unfortunately for Ford, they took it too far and the division now appears to be on life support.

Ford has also been known to take advantage of the real estate at the end of the model number for maximum hoon appeal — on the 1968 FT500KR, the "KR" stood for "King of the Road." At least they didn't suffer from false modesty.

Suffixes may also carry different meanings based on the language. "E" means "Economy" on a BMW, but on a Mercedes it stands for "Einspritzung." If you don't happen to know that "Einspritzung" means "Fuel-injected," well, that's just too bad for you.

Then there's Chrysler's approach to the whole suffix question. In 1955, the company came out with the C300. Then, in a stunningly illogical progression, they followed with the 300B in 1956 and the 300C in 1957. Despite their complete neglect of the letter "A", the nomenclature gurus still felt they were on to something, and so they continued with alphabetic model suffixes, one per year, until the 1965 300L, skipping the "I" for reasons unknown.

In 1999, Chrysler came out with the 300M. Okay, so they took a 34-year break, but at least they picked up where they left off. But the 2005 model year saw the 300C re-released as the top-of-the-line vehicle, angering Chrysler buffs who resented the inappropriate appropriation of a previous year's model name.

Atul summed it up nicely for me. "Suffixes are a necessary evil. They usually don't mean anything, sometimes mean something, are usually chosen to sound good, can be abused."

These manufacturers must think we're a bunch of pajeros.